Alai swiped her card again. The door remained closed. She frowned, biting her lip, and swiped the card again. Still nothing.
To the outside observer, Alai would have looked like a befuddled tropical fish that had somehow managed to swim hundred of miles inland just to land in the middle of a cement hallway. Her complexly-layered clothing was bright red, yellow, and blue, contrasting with her dark skin. Her hair was done up in a series of small spiral buns. All let out, it would go down past her waist. With her free arm she held a stack of books: a fresh notebook, an English-Imperial dictionary, the Guided Meditations of the Empress, the Foundation Standard Operations Handbook, a map of Site-19, a folder with her department briefings, a book from home.
She looked to her right, and then to her left. There was nobody there. She looked at the clock on the wall, converting the time in her head. The day-night cycles here, along with the jet-lag, had made the last two days a complete blur, but she was beginning to bounce back.
Six-and one-half hours from the cycle origin, that’s equivalent to…
Was she too early? Would they think badly of her for it? Maybe she should go back to the dormitory and…
No, no, that wouldn’t do. Had to show proper work ethic. Show up bright and early, make a good impression. Couldn’t be seen as a burden.
She swiped the card again. Nothing happened, again. Look right, look left, still no one. The hallway was bare, hauntingly lonely. None of the portraits or statues or tapestries of empresses and sundry figures past and their accomplishments.
Seeing no better option, Alai knocked, as loud as she could with one hand. This persisted for some time, with the occasional “Hello?” thrown in for good measure.
She was just about to give up before the door slid open, revealing a sleepy-looking man of early middle-age. Brown hair, light skin, rather tall, bags under his eyes, broad, boxy build, a bit of a gut and a general look of dishevelment.
“You the one from Antarctica?” He said, his voice tinged with tiredness.
Alai nodded, smiling. There was that word again, their name for the Empire.
“Alai LoCaen sen’a LoCaen Jaie, journeyman-scholar of the fifth school, Imperial Institute of Paranormal and Esoteric Study.” She spoke as clearly as she could, trying to minimize her accent, use Northworld inflections. It didn’t help much. Her accent spread across her words like blackbutter on bread.
“Card wasn’t working?”
“No, it wasn’t letting me in.”
“You put it in upside down or something?”
Alai looked at the card. She didn’t think that she had…oh, there it was. A little black arrow next to the magnetic strip, pointing the way it should have been swiped.
Heat flushed through her face. Of course. Of course she’d make a silly mistake like that on the first day.
“Come on, might as well show you around.” The man yawned. “You one of those crazy gung-ho morning people?”
“I don’t think so. It’s all very strange, the timing of everything.”
“Guess it would be for you. Name’s Ed, by the way.”
Ed. No family name? Or was he withholding it? Low-caste? His appearance was slovenly, so that was a possibility or…no, couldn’t keep thinking in Imperial terms.
Alai followed Ed through a set of monolithic plastic frames with no doors. Some sort of security system?
“You’re a few hours early for the morning shift, so I guess I can give you the tour.” Ed lazily swung a hand out across the expanse of the room. “Welcome to the library.”
It was both reassuringly familiar and uncomfortably different. Plain grey carpet on the floor, no ornamentation or design. Rows and rows of bookshelves, metal instead of wood. Kiosks for computers far smaller than she was used to, tables and chairs scattered throughout. The same long, pale lights instead of hanging paper lamps. The overall lack of decoration gave it that same sort of cold, empty, alien feel. There was no one else there.
“Main desk is up here on level one, and then you’ve got level two below us, and then three and four and all the way down to six. Levels four through six are anomalous materials: you won’t be down there. You just stick around here and get books when people need help getting books, do your own research, whatever. Your shift doesn’t start for another hour and a half so look around, I guess.” He yawned again. “I’ll be over there, wake me up if you need me. Try not to need me.”
Without another glance in her direction, he trundled over to the main desk and sat in the chair, leaning back with his feet on the desk.
Alai stood there for a moment,
She walked over to the desk.
“Um, excuse me, but what am I supposed to do?”
Ed opened one eye.
“You read the paperwork? Until Dr. Quail gets here for the day shift, you can do whatever the hell you want. I’m not your boss.”
“Oh. Okay. If you could show me to…”
Ed grunted, in that universal ‘I am trying to sleep do not disturb the grump’ way. No getting anything from him, then.
Alai hesitantly wandered over to one of the desks and set her books down. The stillness was all-encompassing, muffling even her own heartbeat. Ed’s behavior puzzled her, threw everything off balance. She wasn’t sure if he was a superior, or a co-worker, and his total lack of interest, in her home, in the exchange program was bizarre.
Couldn’t dwell on it now. He wasn’t going to help, so she’d have to make her own. Alai took her dictionary from her pile and stepped into the shelves.
Her pile became signficantly higher when she had returned. The categories were easy enough to figure out: history here, sciences here, fiction here, biographies here, and so on. Figuring out the subjects of books had been somewhat difficult, and had required a good deal of flipping through the dictionary, but she had managed. Encyclopedias first, world history and religions, and then focus in greater detail from there.
She set a half-dozen books open in front of her on the table, paging through each at whim. With the atlas studied the shapes of the continents that had been little more than unexplored blobs on Imperial maps. So many things to see. So many things to learn. The awkwardness at the door faded away with the time.
After some time, Alai became aware of the library door opening. She looked up from her book to see a thin man with a shaved head and a thick beard, wearing a bright yellow shirt with a floral pattern. His gaze jumped directly to her, which seemed to set off some sort of spark in his eyes.
“Hello hello hello!” He strode over with big steps and a big smile. “Dr. Argus Quail, tibi servio.” He extended his hand, which Alai shook after a moment’s pause. She put a good deal of strength and energy into it, to make up for her prior failures in the act. Quail laughed. “Strong handshake! I like that. You’re Alai, correct? Am I pronouncing that right?”
“Wonderful! Welcome, yes, welcome. You and I, we’ll have to have lunch sometime soon. Need to compare literary traditions. I would do it today, but I’m afraid there’s a faculty meeting and if I skip out on another one of those the Directors’ Committee will have my knickers. Now I would love to show you around myself, but I can’t stay for long, have things to do, books to sort and all. Edward!” He called over to the main desk. “Edward, show our guest around!” He turned back to Alai. “Once again, I am very sorry I cannot show you around personally, my dear, but Edward is a good man, he knows the ropes.”
Alai wasn’t sure what ropes had to do with anything, or that Quail was a very observant man. She looked over to see Ed walking towards her: Quail had already disappeared.
“Hi, again.” Alai waved half-heartedly. Ed yawned again.
“That man has the attention span of a fly in a bakery. Guess I can’t get out of this, then. Come on…”
Over the next hour or so, Quail’s faith in Ed was not entirely misplaced, Alai decided. He knew where everything was, answered every question, explained protocol succinctly, and did not appear incredibly impatient. He still didn’t make a single comment about the fact that she was from another world.
Soon enough, he had shown her what there was to show her, and they returned to the first level. There were more people in the library now, more librarians and researchers scurrying silently about. Ed gave a lazy goodbye, a yawn, and left.
Alai went back to her stack of books, carrying a large one she had found during the tour. An atlas. The perfect place to begin her studies. She sat down and opened it up, slowly parsing the blocky text they favored. A few pages in, she saw a two-page spread of the Empire, covered in ice. Alai tapped it with her finger, placing Rootrel and the other major cities. Her finger lingered on where Kemdn should have been. Where her home should have been.
The loneliness crept up slowly for a few trickling moments before crashing down on her in its full, hollow force, taking her enthusiasm and drowning it. She was alone. Barely more than a girl, alone in a world not her own, where things were cold and unadorned. This was her home now, but there was nothing homely about the place. Her friends, her family, her masters and teachers, even her Empress, all far, far away. She wouldn't see any of them or speak to any of them for a long time. Quail was kind, for all she had interacted with him, and so were many of the other staff, but…were they just putting on false smiles, enduring or pitying the stupid, silly girl who stumbled into their lives and talked too fast and got over-excited about the littlest things?
She didn’t even belong in the exchange group. She wasn’t even supposed to be here, it was only that her aunt had fallen ill at the last minute and so she was sent instead. She couldn't face the others, couldn’t talk to them: two were so high above her station that there was no way she could approach them, she had no idea how to speak with the Black Court, and she had yet to really speak to the artists. Shifting Snow…she had met him once before, at a funeral. Pleasant enough, but he was a cousin of another family branch, too far away to be real kin.
She bit her lip. No. No. She was going to do this. She did belong. The Empress’s hand didn’t move without reason. She was going to do this and when she went home when her studies here were done she would step off that train with smiles and stories and be known as the girl who went North and learned everything there was to know and she would see her mother and father and sisters there at the station waiting for her.
She rubbed her eyes on her sleeve. Don’t think about home, think about here. Think about now.
She turned the page, and began to read about Asia.
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