by G. Howell
Text and illustration ©2005 G. Howell
|An earlier version of this novel can be read at the authors website
A paperback edition is available from ANTHRO Press
Running feet pattered and clicked on worn flagstones, the sound echoing hollowly through the Librarys cold stone corridors. Of course running in the Citadel was frowned upon, but at this hour the halls were practically deserted; the only ones around to witness such infractions were the rats and mice, and they couldnt care less.
The cavernous oval floor of the foyerpacked with students during daylight hourswas as deserted as the rest of the Library. Beyond the antique leaded glass of the high ceiling dome, night-bound clouds scudded across the sky, seemingly just arms length outside. He blinked up at fat raindrops blatting against the glass and shivered; the heating was turned down for the night, not that it ever made much of a difference in a room this size anyway. Somewhere in the library an old water clock chimed the hour, making him glance at his timepiece for confirmation. He grimaced. Rot it! Late enough already.
In the dimness, terminalsa few with green characters flickering up their screenstared glassily from their cubicles. Beyond the glass partitions, row upon row of ancient shelves stretched off into the shadowy vaults. The soundproofed viewing and study chambers were tucked away in a quiet corner behind a row of wood-paneled doors, one with the In Use plate glowing. He sighed and took a guess at exactly what shed say, then opened the door.
You took your time!
He grinned. Close enough.
Mas swung her feet off the edge of the desk, spun the chair around and glared up at him as the door hissed shut behind him. One finger was impatiently drumming a tattoo on the well-worn upholstered armrest. So, did you bring it?
Love you too, he retorted, flopping into the second chair. She glared at him. All right! I got it, he waved the plastic case under her nose. Why did you have to wait for the last minute anyway?
I had other business, she growled.
Hed heard that one before. Sure. More important than your finishing grade?
Oh? What? Someone die?
She stared at him, then began to bristle. None of your business!
All right. He shrugged. Sorry. Forget it. Anyway, you could have booked some of the librarys disks earlier in the year.
I didnt know theyd all be booked out. That festering video they showed; suddenly everyone wants the disks. Great timing, Mas scratched fingers against the wooden countertop, Just in time for a thesis. Why on earth did they set this as the topic!?
Come on. You know its customary for every Academy graduate to do it.
Every year? she asked with a wrinkle of her nose. Youd think the Great Learned Ones would be filled to the back teeth reading all those recycled essays. Most of the students just load a thesis saved a year ago and rewrite it. If you look through the files youll see they all seem remarkably similar.
Those filesre supposed to be locked!
Huh! she snorted. You of all people should know the locks they use are a joke. Theres no way they can keep a dedicated system wanderer out. If you know the right people and right software, you can get access to anything.
She just grinned at him.
Perhaps she would. That was her style: all take and no give. He didnt know why hed agreed to help her. A strange one she was: Only recently arrived at the Academy, perhaps not even from the east coast. Intelligent enoughin the Academy that went without sayingprobably smarter than he was, but also incredibly aloof and arrogant. Nobody knew anything more about her other than that she kept herself separate from everyone else, never entering into relationships: a frigid bitch to all appearances. Hed never known anyone who had even claimed to have spent a night with her. He had never found her files in the admin system. She seemed to be a nobody, but nevertheless she held some kind of sway over the establishment; that was the only way theyd been able to bend the rules and get into the Library after hours.
Her arrival at his dorm had come as a complete surprise and her request no, her demand for help on this project had left him flustered and tongue-tied. Perhaps if hed been thinking straight he wouldnt have agreed to help. It was his high academic achievements thatd caught her attention and he knew in his gut that when shed squeezed him for all he was worth, shed dump him.
Somehow, he didnt care.
Frigid she might be, but she was also undeniably attractive; any red-blooded male would gladly give a testicle for a chance to be shut in a cubicle with her. A shame she had a tendency to turn it into an experience akin to being shut in a refrigerator. A real waste.
He sighed Oh well. If youre going to do it that way, what do you need me for? Ill just let you get on with it. He began to stand but she kicked his feet out so he fell back into the chair.
Sit down! Youre a walking encyclopedia when it comes to this kind of thing. And I know you get a rush out of doing it. Already got a career planned out, havent you? What was it? Historics and Research?
Uh yes. Howd you know?
Heard you in the canteen.
Oh. When had that been? He hadnt been to the canteen for
I cant understand why you enjoy this kind of thing, she snorted. We could be researching something practical, like matrix memory, or the space probes and parallel junction projects.
And whered those come from? He waved the disk. Arent you forgetting who actually suggested those ideas? Weve just developed the capabilities to actually build them.
History! she muttered. Shackles of expectations!
Nothing. She shook her head. Just forget it.
Forget it? You like riddles?
No. Its nothing. Just something my father once told me.
Dont ask! she snapped. Now weve got work to do. That video: how accurate was it?
Uh her sudden change of tact had thrown him. Her father, that was a fascinating slip. There was more there but later. I It was fairly well done, but of course you could still tell they were costumes. And they cleaned it up a little: rearranged parts to make it more interesting. He flipped the disk box in the air and caught it again. This transcription is copied verbatim from the original translation. Well, as close as possible anyway. Everythings there.
Great, she muttered unenthusiastically. Ah, well. What about the museum? You recommend it?
Definitely! You havent seen anything until youve seen them in the flesh, so to speak. Weird! he chuckled, then added, And you should look up their mating habits. Thats got some interesting tidbits.
Mas snorted, snatched the case and popped it open, checking the disks label before dropping it into the drive. The screen flickered, the manufacturers logo blinking across the top, then the disks boot sectors took over and a menu appeared, icons arranged in neat rows. Mas selected one, pressed the pucks button and the drive light flickered for a second, then the high-resolution digitized graphic of an ancient, worn leather volume appeared on the screen along with title and dates. Beat his old system back home clear out of the running speedwise, and the graphics were so clear they seemed to jump out of the glass. Another few seconds then the screen cleared and the text of the translation began to scroll down the VDU.
Put it up on the big screen, he suggested, then after a few seconds added, Who knows, you might even find this interesting.
She bared teeth back at him and he smiled to himself.
At the touch of a key, the featureless black wall above the monitor flickered, text appeared on it, the lights dimmed. Without another word the pair settled back in their chairs and began to read