by G. Howell
Text and illustration ©2005 G. Howell

Prologue -=- Part 1 -=- Part 2-=-Part 3 -=- Part 4 -=- Epilogue

Home -=- #001 -=- ANTHRO #1 Stories
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An earlier version of this novel can be read at the author’s website
A paperback edition is available from ANTHRO Press

I, a stranger and afraid
In a world I never made
A. E. Housman

   Running feet pattered and clicked on worn flagstones, the sound echoing hollowly through the Library’s 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 couldn’t care less.
   The cavernous oval floor of the foyer—packed with students during daylight hours—was 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 arm’s 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, terminals—a few with green characters flickering up their screen—stared 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 she’d 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.
   He’d 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 library’s disks earlier in the year.”
   “I didn’t know they’d 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 it’s customary for every Academy graduate to do it.”
   “Every year?” she asked with a wrinkle of her nose. “You’d 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 you’ll see they all seem remarkably similar.”
   “Those files’re supposed to be locked!”
   “Huh!” she snorted. “You of all people should know the locks they use are a joke. There’s 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.”
   “You wouldn’t!”
   She just grinned at him.
   Perhaps she would. That was her style: all take and no give. He didn’t know why he’d agreed to help her. A strange one she was: Only recently arrived at the Academy, perhaps not even from the east coast. Intelligent enough—in the Academy that went without saying—probably 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. He’d 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 they’d 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 he’d been thinking straight he wouldn’t have agreed to help. It was his high academic achievements that’d caught her attention and he knew in his gut that when she’d squeezed him for all he was worth, she’d dump him.
   Somehow, he didn’t 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 you’re going to do it that way, what do you need me for? I’ll 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! You’re 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, haven’t you? What was it? Historics and Research?”
   “Uh… yes. How’d you know?”
   “Heard you in the canteen.”
   “Oh.” When had that been? He hadn’t been to the canteen for…
   “I can’t 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 where’d those come from?” He waved the disk. “Aren’t you forgetting who actually suggested those ideas? We’ve 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. It’s nothing. Just something my father once told me.”
   “Don’t ask!” she snapped. “Now we’ve 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. Everything’s there.”
   “Great,” she muttered unenthusiastically. “Ah, well. What about the museum? You recommend it?”
   “Definitely! You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen them in the flesh, so to speak. Weird!” he chuckled, then added, “And you should look up their mating habits. That’s got some interesting tidbits.”
   Mas snorted, snatched the case and popped it open, checking the disk’s label before dropping it into the drive. The screen flickered, the manufacturer’s logo blinking across the top, then the disk’s boot sectors took over and a menu appeared, icons arranged in neat rows. Mas selected one, pressed the puck’s 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…

Prologue -=- Part 1 -=- Part 2-=-Part 3 -=- Part 4 -=- Epilogue

Home -=- #001 -=- ANTHRO #1 Stories
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