Required Reading

I’m going to die here, she thought. It’s going to catch me eventually, and then it’s curtains.

As last thoughts went, these weren’t them. Alice expected to continue thinking right up until she died. It was kinda what one did, approximately. She skidded to a halt on the thin carpet, desperately glancing down the aisles of this insane place. The insane place, she would later discover, is called The Library. But she does not know this yet, and thus we are getting ahead of ourselves.

As one would suspect from the name, the corridors and aisles Alice was fleeing down as fast as her legs could take her were lined with books. Millions of books, tomes bound in all colours, the scent of old books thick enough in the air to give her papercuts. Occasionally, there was writing on their spines in silver, black or gold, strange symbols in scripts she’d never seen before. The shelves were nearly three meters tall, and books utterly filled every available space on the shelves, stacked horizontally, slotted vertically, piled on the floor near the shelves and on top of the shelves, nearly three feet high.

The aisle she was running down stopped at a cul-de-sac about twelve feet square, and Alice nearly tripped from coming to a halt so quickly. She spun and saw her pursuer turning the corner into the hallway leading directly to her.

Crap. This is it. She turned back to the ‘room’ she was in. There was a simple wooden table in the centre of the clearing (that she’d nearly rammed into when she came to a halt), several scattered chairs and yet more books piled on the table. She went to snatch up a chair and reality realised halfway through the verb that a different one was necessary. She strained to pick up a chair, mentally cursed herself for not going to the gym more often, discarded her temporary improvised weapon and settled for a particularly hefty-looking tome. The title was in Latin transliterated into Aramaic, and was thus a language she couldn’t speak written in a language she wouldn’t recognise. As weapons of desperation went, it wasn’t a terrible one, but there’s a lot of ground to cross between “not terrible” and “satisfactory”, depending on the marking scheme. She realised partway through the thought that her mind was racing, edging into panic, and that this particular train of thought wasn’t particularly helpful in the main goal of “keep Alice alive”.

She took a deep breath and looked down the corridor. Rattling, accompanied by the scraping noise of claws on wood and carpet, drew ever closer. The thing was a massive spider, moving with languid ease along the corridor at a speed that was rather alarming. Now that it was close enough, it didn’t look nearly as much like a spider as it had from further away. It had a plastic and metal scaled carapace and a cluster of mismatched CCTV cameras where a spider’s head would normally be, each swivelling separately, taking in the spider’s environment. Right. Some kind of robot spider with security cameras for a head. That made perfect sense, albeit a negative amount of perfect sense.

The spider continued to advance towards her. She considered that it might not actually mean her harm, but given the car-sized mechanical spider bearing down on her and the fact that her life was likely in danger in the other eventuality, she was inclined to err on the cautious side.

The cautious side, in this case, was attempting to beat a mechanical spider over the CCTV camera-based head with a very heavy book. She sidled up to the entryway of the clearing, right up next to the aisle the thing was advancing down. She braced herself and glanced round the corner. It was five feet away – close enough for Alice to hear the whirring of its servos as those grotesquely-jointed legs moved. She counted for two agonising seconds, then swung round the corner and planted the book right between the spider’s camera-eyes with a satisfying CRUNCH.

The robot shrieked, loud enough to make Alice wince, and sank down slightly. This was enough. Alice planted a foot on the book lying on its face and leapt over its abdomen, displaying a level of athleticism that she had hitherto believed impossible. She was proved correct when she landed awkwardly and fell over, but the future bruises didn’t matter so much, because she was on the other side of the spider. Victory!

She couldn’t take off at any decent pace – she was fast running out of steam – but she set off at a jog down the twisting book-filled corridor.

– – –

Nothing here made any sense.

This was not a new fact. Nothing here had made any sense at all since she had arrived, all of five hours ago, according to her phone. Her phone, which was no longer picking up signals. This included GPS signals, which implied that she was so deep underground they didn’t penetrate, in a Faraday cage, or on another planet. The massive vaulted ceiling of this library-place seemed to be at least a kilometre away, held up by pillars that were covered in spiralling cliffside bookshelf paths that gave her vertigo to look at. The other landscape, if there was any, was hidden by the main observable feature, a seemingly endless maze of bookshelves. She started glancing over some of the titles for languages she recognised. Occasionally, once in a thousand or so, a book was written in English or Cantonese. Or once, in mirrored English, handwritten so badly that she could barely extract meaning from it, along with anatomical diagrams from a species that superficially resembled humanity, but had far more bones and organs.

She put that book back almost immediately. The rest of them were worse than useless, written in gibberish word salad or some manner of impenetrable code. She kept moving, arm trailing along one wall in an attempt to keep herself travelling through the maze.

In the distance, there was a sound like an air-raid siren. It lasted only for a few seconds but chilled Alice to her bones.

The spider was calling its friends.

– – –

5 Hours Earlier and yet also 5 Something Elses Earlier

“Alice! Thought I’d find you here!” The enthusiastic voice was Tim’s, and he sat down heavily in the chair beside her.

“Piss off,” she replied cheerily, still looking at the book she was hunched over. “I’ve got a paper due in three days and don’t need any pointless distractions.”

Tim snorted. “Three whole days? Where’s the Alice I used to know?”

“Shut. Up Shut,” Alice growled, furrowing her eyebrows and turning her attention to her laptop.

“T-”

“Up!”

“W-”

“Shut!”

“Tell you what,” Tim said, speaking over her interjection, “I’ll get us both some coffee, and you can stop grumping.”

“You’re doing God’s work. Also; not grumping.”

Sure you aren’t.” Tim stood, heading in the direction of the library’s cafeteria and a reasonably large queue of the morning’s uncaffienated and deadline-bound. Alice put her head in her hands and sighed, loudly. It was that time of year again.

– – –

A dark beast falls, breaking into seven pieces as a white light tears it to shreds. It hungrily sucks in the light, each fragment growing larger, but the light switches polarity, turns into Unlight that sucks the mass out of the ravenous shards. A blip of energy spins through the space before it, flickering and burning with the shapes of powers too great, too simple for the beast to understand.

– – –

Right. Deadlines. Back to work, then. She stood, stretched, picked up the heavy book she’d been fruitlessly scouring for references, and headed for the shelves where it had come from. Something else in the same section would probably do the trick. Despite Tim’s mockery, she had actually done most of the work already. The tricky bit was finding enough sources, counter-sources and some hard data wouldn’t necessarily go amiss.

– – –

The beast, the remains of the beast plummet, breaking into pieces as they dart sideways through time and younger dimensions. The blip, the anomaly, follows it, splitting into seven and tunnelling through reality, casting fulminant waves out into the fundamental forces. The fragmented beast can’t escape, and a subjective nanosecond later, a blast of force throws it through another section of metaphor and into an analogy of burning.

– – –

A nameless dread settled heavily on her shoulders as she turned the corner down the aisle, past Historical Fiction. The air seemed heavier, and she could have sworn she heard someone whispering. She shivered, despite the heat, and turned to see the fat lot of nothing but the aisle, lined with shelves. She shivered in the suddenly colder-seeming summer air, turning back to head down the aisle. She reassured herself briefly. The aircon had finally come on, and the occasional freezing blasts of air were entirely expected on a summer morning.

There was nothing weird going on. In some part of her mind, she almost believed herself.

– – –

Reams of impossibility spool out as the broken thing pulls itself back into a mimic of wholeness. The blip has solidified now, and fires a flickering beam of antimatter at the shattered beast, timed to punch through their own annihilation shockwaves. The beast pronounces a Word, and reality closes around it, dropping away into oblivion.

The blip, the point of light, dives down after it, through the hissing, screaming, silent void. With a thunderous non-sound, it splits the hollow tungsten sphere that the beast was hiding in, and pops the bubble of reality around it with another Word. Everything inside the bubble, from half-mile wide tungsten sphere to the remains of the thing, ceases to exist.

But that isn’t enough to kill it. It comes tearing out of the void, slamming the blip back up against reality with a force unknowable. The blip counters by not countering, and the thing shoves it through the membrane, into reality, falling through the gap after it. Here, they both have forms, are no longer metaphors. It has teeth, and all of reality is its food. The blip has a form now, too, but that is of no interest to the beast. Darkness still patching the holes in its form, it bares its twelve thousand teeth and charges, screaming like a supernova.

The blip, now embodied, snaps fingers that weren’t there a second ago and the beast is transfixed by a pillar of light, spearing through it and pinning it to the ground like a particularly grotesque butterfly.

Snap. Snap snap. Three more pillars of light, crucifying the beast horizontally.

The creature gurgles out a laugh. It cannot be killed. It devours, and it is not alive enough to die. The blip, the anomaly, only got this far by luck and by having a head start.

The blip pauses, notes that that’s exactly the impression that a thoroughly defeated thing would give off, and proceeds to tear the creature back into seven pieces, funnelling each of them to the burning hearts of seven different stars.

Dead” is a strong word to use at times like this, but the thing has been neutralised, at least for the time being. Most of what time is being is subjective. This does not bother the blip.

Nothing does, these days.

– – –

She was scanning the shelves, unaware of the deepening shadows behind her. She was, however, painfully aware of the return of the whispering. She briefly considered that she was developing schizophrenia, and made a mental note to go see her GP once her paper was written and submitted, hopefully before anything regrettable happened. Behind her, the fabric of the Material and Immaterial flickered and twisted, rearranging themselves faster than the human eye could follow, trailing after her like gossamer ribbons.

The whispering crossed the line into definitely audible and real, and as it reached a crescendo, she felt the floor crack and warp beneath her feet. She looked down to see her shadow falling away, taking the section of the floor with it – an impossibly deep pit yawning open, swallowing her scream as she tumbled in.

Silently, the carpet of the library closed up over the chasm, leaving no trace of Alice’s presence besides the book she’d dropped as she fell.

– – –

The blip was gone now, and the shadows lengthened. A ghost of a memory surfaced, and groped its way along fragmented lines to a place where it wasn’t, and adhered.

4 thoughts on “Required Reading

  1. elaienar

    “As last thoughts went, these weren’t them.” I’m laughing, that’s a great line.

    I got a bit confused with the tense-switching in the rest of that paragraph (just enough to have to stop for a bit and try to figure out what was going on, grammatically).

    A huge library is a great setting, I heartily approve and am looking forward to seeing more of it. And also of Alice. I like her. She seems pretty practical and level-headed for someone being chased through an other-worldly library by a giant mechanical spider when she has a paper due in three days.

    Like

    Reply

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