Whiteout and Ink
rating: +21+x

Libraries collect secrets in the quiet hours of the night…

In the midst of the darkness, Alai sat with a mug of hot chocolate in her hands. Her desk lamp carved an island of light in the space between night and morning.

This time of the night, right here, was the only peace to be had in the life of Alai of Antarctica.

Alai hadn’t slept well. She rarely did, these days. Time went too fast here, in the north – An entire year compressed into the space of a few hours, the sun and night going round and round enough to make her dizzy. Always scrambling over itself, go go go. Never going anywhere. Each day the same, each hallway identical. The old circadian rhythms of her brain rejected the terrible race, and clawed back into her memory -

- For the deep black of winter, huddled with her family around the decorated hearth.

- For the long, sweet orange of the fading summer, long walks in the hills.

- For the Empress emerging from her palace to bring the sun above the horizon each spring.

For something more than this. For more than living in this pit. The namesake was fitting – a foundation, a root cellar. Darkness and stone and pickled things.

She drew up and drank in all those memories there in the timeless moment, offering her secrets to the library. Only then, when all else was gone, could she entertain those thoughts – elsewhere, the despair that stabbed through her heart would be too much to bear. In her waking hours, a permanent knot of tension had formed between her shoulder blades, as if her spine had fused into a tangled, cancerous mass.

The place was a cage, and she the fool locked within.

Three years now, in the north. She was the last of the Imperials to remain with the Foundation. All the rest had returned home…or so had been said. Alai doubted. So easy to doubt now, but so hard to replace it. She had applied for transfer back home long ago. No response. The next four times were the same, and by the sixth she had stopped trying. The message was clear.

“We didn’t receive it, could you please resubmit?” was just the patina covering “Stop rattling the bars.”

This place didn’t need historians, nor want them. That truth was bared. The library she had been shown before was merely temporary, as the Powers that Be soon decided that a restructuring and downsizing was in order only a few months after she arrived.

Dr. Quail vanished around that time. He simply didn’t show up the next morning, one day during the restructuring. It was difficult to remember his face, and Alai could only dimly hold on to the impressions of his colorful shirts and colorful speech. No one else ever talked about him. No one else ever pretended to remember him. Her early, clumsy searches fell on empty directories and deaf ears.

Not even in the computer systems. So clear, so obvious - but no one cared. There was no Dr. Argus Quail. Written out of the record.

What was wrong with them? What was wrong with her? A fuzzy face, a distant voice, a colorful shirt – imagined? An act in an elaborate stage play?

The paranoia had gripped her for a time, and faded. There was really only one way to deal with it: She stopped asking questions. People disappeared. And somewhere, on someone’s list, there was her name. Waiting with Damocles’ eraser hung overhead.

Ed remained for a while longer, another year and some, before he too vanished. Re-assigned, they said, though not to where. Classified.

A few other librarians came and went in that space, but Alai found herself the most senior of them. All gone now – she was the last. The last librarian of the Foundation. Perhaps even the last one who cared for the books - The band of her regular visitors had faded, to the point that it might be days without a single visitor. No friends, certainly. Strangers here to pull files from the archives.

Shortly after Ed was taken away, the memos began. The memos always began like this:

“The Information Review Bureau has determined that the following items are no longer accurate:”

And everything on the list was to be disposed. Every two weeks, the notice came in, with another list of names.

Alai loaded them up in the incinerator as instructed. Somewhere, inside her, on the hills of her youth, a girl cried out against the injustice.

Everything to the fire. Papers written by the wrong people, about the wrong things. People who obviously didn’t exist. Photographs that were clearly staged. Journals that were undeniably hoaxes. All into the fire, licking up unwanted time.

What wasn’t burned, was taken by the IRB itself, and returned two weeks later. Words were missing. Sentences changed.

It was all so obvious… but no one saw it. It must have been real then, right? People would notice it if it was that obvious. People would care…

Alai had found once, in a dark and dusty corner of the archives, a photograph – black and white, old enough that it near crumbled in her hands. A old man with a beautiful bushy mustache and a dashing coat, attended by a taller, leaner, younger man in black. The first man was cutting a ribbon run up across a doorway with a pair of scissors. On the back was written.

“Opening the Blackwood Foundation, 1889”

Into the fire. The IRB was very clear it was meaningless. In fact, the representative she showed it to was confused by its presence in the library itself.

Into the fire, into the fire. Oh Empress she was tired.

The archives, so wonderful and welcoming when she had arrived, were now a cold, starving thing. A half-corpse, suckling on the censor’s pen. Sometimes, Alai even found herself doubting the existence of the world outside the site. Who was to say that there was anything left? Who was to say that the books had anything true at all?

It was difficult enough getting people to remember that she had come up from the south…

Alai finished her hot chocolate…

and sat in the darkness…

Alone.

***

There was no body to be found. Just an empty mug, a banana peel in the trash can, and a folded piece of paper, held underneath a little nameplate with flower stickers on it.

“Hear me, my chiefs: My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

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