The dream ended abruptly, and Alice found herself twisted beneath the covers of an impressively soft bed, in a room she didn’t recognise at all. It was oddly-shaped, for one – the roof sloped, and none of the walls were truly vertical. It was bigger than her room at home (not that that’d take much), and the walls were made of wood, carved in fractal patterns of spirals and whorls. Here and there, bright copper tendrils broke the surface of the wood, tracing a pink-orange filigree across the dark brown, before dipping back beneath the surface again, like hyphae of some robotic fungus. Light in the room was provided by a bundle of glowing orbs, dangling from the ceiling’s rough centre like green bioluminescent grapes. The window, irregularly-shaped and slightly blurry, showed what seemed to be a view from the massive cliff she’d been looking at before… she wasn’t sure. There’d been a smell, and then darkness, possibly. And, before that, something about a library?
Alice was jolted from her reverie by two realisations. Firstly, that she was extremely uncomfortable – she was still wearing her clothes, sweaty from all the walking. She was still wearing her shoes. Also, whoever had put her in the bed had neglected to remove her hair tie, and every follicle of her head ached in response.
The second realisation was that she had been woken by someone knocking. She sat up, pulling the tie from her hair and kicking her shoes off, and went to the door. She released the latch – oddly, it had been locked from the inside – and as she opened the door, she almost believed she’d come face to face with another human.
“You’re awake! Who are you feeling?” The man through the door was a bit taller than her. He looked broadly human, with much the same body shape, number and position of limbs, but that was where the similarities ended. His hair was yellow-lime in colour, down to the roots, and had leaves of the same colour woven into it, seemingly attached to his head. His eyes were the strangest. Bright yellow, luminescent irises on a pure black background where human eyes were white. He bore a very humanlike expression of concerned puzzlement as his question went unanswered.
She realised she was staring, felt the heat rise in her face, and averted her eyes. “Um. I’m okay? Wait, did you ask who I was feeling?”
“Ah yes, you had an ontologically dangerous accident, so I was just checking. How you are feeling is important too. Do you need anything?”
“I think I need a shower and a change of clothes. If that’s possible, I mean.”
“You need watering?” The strange man looked puzzled. “You don’t seem the type, if that’s not rude to say.”
“I. Er. I use the water to clean myself,” she responded. This was steadily getting more surreal. “Where am I, by the way?”
“Ah! I know this one! We’re in a small walltown called Seven-Twenty, in a hotel run by my friend Kallie.”
“Oh.” That answered a couple of her questions and prompted a few more that she hadn’t even been worrying about before. “What happened?”
“You were ambushed by some things called censœrs. They hunt by restricting your access to knowledge until you can’t remain conscious, then eat every fact about you. The digrestion process-”
“I heard you the first time. What does it mean?”
“The idea-dissolution process the Censœrs use to extract peoples’ concepts. It’s pretty slow, and I interrupted it early, so I think you won’t actually lose any memories or anything, but you may find them hard to recall. Do you know your double-yous?”
A Librarian beamed. “That’s one of them! Your whats, wheres, whos, whys, whens and hows. I mean, how doesn’t start with a w, but it’s included.”
Alice closed her eyes, ran through the list. “I don’t think I ever knew where the hell I am, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t forgotten anything key to my identity.”
“That reminds me, we haven’t been introduced! I’m A Librarian. What’s your name?”
“Alice. Alice Huang,” she said. “And wait, your name is A Librarian?”
“Well, I am an A Librarian after all, so it’d make sense,” he said, making an amount of sense that was practically of homoeopathic concentration.
“Wh-What the what?”
“I am an A Librarian, and my name is A Librarian.” He spoke a bit slower, not quite the full level of condescension one would use when talking to a child. “Look, you’re recovering from a censœr attack, you need some kind of food, and maybe some light reading. Come with me and we can see if there’s anything you can eat in the pantry.” Alice followed him down a zig-zagging corridor lined with mismatched doors, ones that wouldn’t look out of place in front of a stately home jostling for space with the doors from an elevator and a telephone booth.
She’d slowed down to look at some of the doors, so she only barely saw A Librarian disappear, dropping into the floor at the end of the corridor. As she reached the end and looked where he’d gone, she saw the dizzying view of a corridor stretching vertically downwards. A Librarian was strolling down the wall like it was the easiest thing in the world.
This is probably going to be fine, she thought as she grit her teeth and stepped forwards, into the air. The gravity was just going to shift and- what no it wasn’t shifting she was going to fall! She tried to throw herself backwards, but she slipped, losing her footing and falling down – wait – along the corridor.
A Librarian, hearing her startled shriek, spun round and barely managed to catch her. With some care, he managed to move her round until she was reasonably upright (albeit at right angles to the corridor’s floor), holding her aloft with his hands under her armpits. He was much stronger than he looked, given that he was doing so with little apparent effort.
“You don’t seem used to disjoint perspectives,” he said, flashing her a reassuring smile. “Most new people round here aren’t, don’t worry.” With a dizzying shift of gravity, he placed her gently on her feet, standing on the floor of the vertical corridor.
“Thanks,” she breathed, heart still pounding.
“Glad to help. Let’s see about getting you some breakfast, shall we?” He gestured down the corridor to an open door at the end. “This way.”
The kitchen looked a lot like the result of Dali becoming an interior designer. None of the angles were quite right, and a lot of items that would normally have straight edges… didn’t. At the wide counter, their back to her, stood a humanoid figure in a polka-dotted dress. What caught Alice’s eye, however, was the fact that the figure’s head looked like that of some insect, swollen to hundreds of times its original size. The person turned, and she saw that their head was that of an enormous ant, mandibles clacking as two compound eyes the size of basketballs took in the scene.
“Hey, Kallie,” A Librarian said. So this was the owner. “Kallie, this is the guest.”
Kallie’s antennae twitched. “⇁⇌⇟⇋↬↓←⇆↯↭↝←⇝↝⇝⇝⇟↳⇚⇒⇚⇃↝↱⇝↦↥↬⇑⇝↓↯↝↿⇗↳”
Their voice was a discordant and unintelligible grinding screech, like the sound of balloons scraping on each other as they were shoved into a woodchipper.
“Uh, Kallie, I don’t think she can speak Dings.” A Librarian said hurriedly, noticing Alice’s look of pained incomprehension.
The ant-headed creature made a very human sound of throat-clearing. “AH, MY APOLOGIES.” Their voice sounded robotic and raspy, with an undertone that sounded like an old dot matrix printer or a hard drive failing. “YOU CAN CALL ME MX FORMICA. WHAT WOULD YOU WISH TO BE CALLED?”
A Librarian responded before she could. “Alice Alice Huang.”
“Just… just Alice, okay.”
“OKAY, ‘JUST ALICE OKAY’.” In response, Alice groaned loudly and clapped her hands over her face.
“I AM JESTING. A LIBRARIAN HERE IS NOT TOO USED TO PEOPLE WITH UNIQUE NAMES,” Kallie rasped, with the barest hint of discernible amusement in their tone.
“A Librarians are all called A Librarian,” he supplied.
Alice blinked. “That… must get confusing.”
“It really doesn’t,” A Librarian said, shrugging.
There was only one explanation for this. This alternate universe, strange dimension or whatever was full of crazy people. Or she was hallucinating, but she’d had that dream of a future version of herself earlier, and weren’t dreams-within-dreams impossible? She wasn’t sure.
“SO. BREAKFAST. WHAT IS IT YOU EAT, FLESH CREATURE?” In response to Kallie’s words, her stomach growled, and she realised how long it must have been since she last ate something.
“Uh. Do you have normal food?”
She realised before Kallie replied that that was a stupid question. “IT DEPENDS WHAT YOU DEFINE AS NORMAL. I COULD MAKE SOME GUESSES.”