A palm sized girl in a yellow summer dress twisted in the air, deploying dragonfly wings into a short Immelmann turn. She radiated an odorless bulb of silver whym that made one wonder if she swallowed a nightlight.
According to what little Nan could extract from Brass’ abridged lecture, guidance fairies were the fruits of a long-dead researcher’s pet project; artificial sigil fragments given a synthetic body, a live map, and a “brain” complex enough to imitate an eager to please child.
With everyone she knew having actual jobs to handle, the help was a godsend. So what if they were typically assigned to toddlers too young to read or navigate a tablet themselves? So what if this one in particular seemed to have too much fun with the simple act of flying; giggling her way into maneuvers that suited a fighter jet more than insect wings every few seconds. It wasn’t that annoying.
Still, the relatively quiet deck they found themselves in was a welcome respite. Very few souls stopped to stare. In fact, very few souls were present at all.
Common rooms occasionally broke carpeted hallways, dotted whym signatures paired off with tiny motes like the lamp in her own studio apartment. She couldn’t get a clear short range “map” of every room she passed by; most of the larger doors returned the squeamish sensation of magical inertness.
Were they stumbling through another whym intensive work complex? The one two floors above had walkways perched above a wide room of stone and steel filled with assembly belts. Garage doors made of the “don’t look through me” material hid clamors of metal on metal that still had Nan’s ears ringing a bit. This deck didn’t fit the mold.
Oh. There was something slightly different. Another studio room but with two person-sized signatures resting close to each oth-
Nan couldn’t not sense them, so she settled for a brisk pace until they were out of range. She squashed her cheeks against her palms, it would be wonderful if brain bleach was both a thing, and easily accessible.
“Are you okay?” The fairy flittered about in a U shaped circuit that had Nan struggle to maintain eye contact. “This deck has a really pretty rock garden if you want to rest.”
“Erm, no, it’s not that… what was your name?”
“I just can’t find a reason for these decks being so discordant.” Nan waved at nothing in particular. Their surroundings were slightly chilly, with a constant draft wafting through. Soft lights backed furnishings that melded with the gentle whites and browns of the deck’s main color scheme.
“It’s a cheek slapping conundrum. Hence me, slapping my cheeks.” Nan performed the gesture again in demonstration.
Chitani was right, she was bad at lying. With every second Eilis didn’t respond, Nan grew more anxious over the prospect of giving an AI “the talk” Of course, two signatures that close to each other didn’t invariably confirm her suspicions, no matter how damming it looked.
“I’ve never thought about that.” She believed her?
“Be back in a bit.” Eilis’ wings flicked outwards before going stiff, the amount of whym flowing through them diminished without the demand to keep up with her random jinks. Electric lines skimmed across eyes that dilated until their irises were nothing but pale rims of green.
Was she freezing up? Nan waved a hand in front of her face. “Eili-”
Eilis’ voice came at a steady monotone delivered with a blank face. “‘Federation design philosophy favored widely varied interiors long before the first wave of inertia negation removed the need for thrust limitation and stringent safety precautions. It was considered “criminally negligent” to force crew members, who may spend their entire lives drifting across the cosmos, to an existence of monotony. Though many of my planet-bound contemporaries advocate the abandonment of manifold interiors to simply spite our misguided parents, to do so would be a grievous error. I ask of you, how soon would you find yourself depressed or tried to the point of malaise if every street, house, and shopping district within your city or archology were of spartan grain? Comfort breeds contentment, and contentment breeds productivity.’ Lord Adan Shrike, Abyss Vessels: our Cradle Amongst the Stars, Volume II.” Eilis flapped her wings once, flipping back to her normal disposition.
“Huh, did you pull that from the internet?”
“Of course!” Eilis offered a close eyed smile.
Right. Microcomputer with wings. Nan didn’t know why she expected a different answer.
They stopped in front of a set of whym barren doors, much to Nan’s displeasure.
“This is Tomekeep Garuda, but…” Eilis’ light dimmed. She chewed on her bottom lip like Greg would whenever he didn’t want to say something was bothering him.
“It’s okay, speak up.” A small part of her hoped Eilis’ net connection said the place was undergoing renovations or something, and there was another one a few floors away that didn’t have freaky dead zones to cross.
“Can you please, please, please take me to the rock garden when you have time, I don’t come to this deck often, it’s so out of the way.” No such luck, it seemed.
“Deal.” Nan offered her pinkie finger.
She deserved it, without her help Nan would have to piggyback off someone else who’s job description didn’t include getting lost, illiterate, technically undead people from point A to point B. That kind of thing could be rather grating after the first six times.
Instead of shaking her pinkie, Eilis hugged Nan’s entire hand, wings growing brighter as she beat them into a blur. Her tiny muscles were deceptively strong.
“Thank you thank you thank you!” She squealed. “Call for me by name at a guidance terminal if you need help when you’re done!” Eilis darted away at breakneck speed, disappearing around a corner so that her incessant giggling echoed softer and softer, like the universe’s most friendly poltergeist.
Nan took a deep breath and set her teeth to getting the bit of unpleasantness ahead of her behind her. She couldn’t let herself procrastinate by falling into a loop of endless internal monologue. With at least some knowledge of the sensation, a second-time experience couldn’t be as bad as the first.
It was just as bad. if not worse, due to the hall being slightly longer than the agility trial’s.
Had it been three or so degrees more intense, it may have made Nan throw up. She would have absolutely no remorse in such a case. It was the LCW’s fault for putting useless whym masking crap in their ships. If she had to deal with their mess it would only be fair for them to deal with her own. Nan pressed both palms against the tomekeep’s entrance, double doors that glowed with a bit of precious neutral whym.
It was an ornate thing made of wood, complete with a heavy knockers fixed into the mouth of what looked like a carved eagles with mohawks of feathers surrounded by lightning bolts. She reached for one, only for the door to come open of its own volition. The Eagle’s eyes glowed a deep purple as it stole a drop of her whym.
The door also shut behind her. Nan tested it to make sure that it hadn’t, in fact, locked her in.
It was surreal. In some ways, the atrium presented what Nan would expect of a library from home, tables and writing materials poked through a forest of shelves that were at least three times as tall as she was, then the chandelier reminded her of where she really was. Another, much larger, eagle carving loftily spread its wings, looking down at Nan with glowing eyes that changed color every few seconds. Tied to its claws were a bundle of four massive lights in the shape of planets.
More interesting were the books as she saw them through her less than mundane senses; great globs of whym separated by color, and ordered from smallest to largest starting at the top right of each shelf.
She stepped further in, and as she neared grasping range of a shelf, its contents became clear. They weren’t simple smatterings of whym, but entire sigils laid on display like pinned insects, though much less macabre.
All very neat, but she couldn’t find a single person, and the whym from the tomes were in the way. She feared what kind of sensory overload would wash over her if she tried a seeking pulse like the one she accidently used in the agility trial, she reserved it as a last resort.
Nan neared an unattended front desk. Four separate piles of orange, green, blue, and black tomes stood equidistant of each other. An illegible nameplate, and a stoppered inkwell of all things, were also present. It had everything and the kitchen sink, save for a bell or obvious calling mechanism.
Two sets of stairs drew over and around the wall bracing the front desk like a pair of cradling arms, one lead upwards while the other went below a lifted-out section of the floor at her right. She peered into the descending stairwell first. A metal door warded by chains that all but thrummed with whym.
“Nope.” Nan mumbled.
She knew without the ability to read that the big yellow letters above the foreboding thing advised keeping a healthy distance. It was obviously some archive-dungeon of forbidden magical gobbledygook. That wasn’t an adventure she felt like undertaking. She was no longer a teenager with the biological need to poke her nose into places it didn’t belong for kicks, she liked to believe that she never was.
Up it was then. The steps echoed dully. Looking back, Nan couldn’t help but notice that the eagle chandelier wasn’t held up by anything. Rather, it was holding itself up through some kind of spell or hover tech. Building safety codes across time and space howled in agony.
Nan cupped her hands over her mouth, not quite shouting, “Anyone home?”
“Shhh.” The sound came from the left. The myriad of shelves parted into a wide island of clear carpet, a boy with soft facial features in a flowing green robe looked at her from a round table, one finger held to his lips.
He was cut from a different rabbit inspired cloth than Jarohan; floppy brown ears reached just past his chin, meshing almost perfectly with his hair. They swung in place as he beckoned for Nan to have a seat.
“Hello, I don’t think we’ve met, I’m Seir Vo Le’nus.” He flashed his sigil, a golden key nearly the size of a basketball, it carried the scent of something a degree sweeter than coffee.
“Hi.” Nan introduced herself.
Seir had a kind of diorama in the works. Robots shaped roughly like people in suits of armor, all lights and pauldrons, with extra clamps on arms, backs, and shoulders, some of which were occupied by impractically sized guns or melee weapons. Her immediate favorite was a mostly green one raising an axe with both hands, it loomed over another robot propped up against a rock. To the side were parts on a slate, awaiting assembly.
“What kind of models are those?” She pointed at one rather than touching it, too many memories of science projects ruined by curious kids erected invisible glass barriers around every display Nan saw.
“Strike frames.” It was said in a tone that was almost a question, delivered in the same manner one implies that the other party is missing a basic piece of knowledge, but doesn’t want to sound rude by asking if said party lived under a rock sealed inside a safe under an undisturbed part of the deepest stretch of ocean found in the world.
He blinked. “You’ve been recently reclaimed, haven’t you? Of course, you wouldn’t know what a strike frame is. Sorry.”
“No harm done. Are you the librarian’s son? I need to get something taken care of.”
“I am the librarian…”
“Oh, you looked so young I thought you were just hanging out here.” Nan offered what she hoped was disarming a grin.
“Me? Young?” Seir picked up one of the models, a murgumo shaped robot with jagged armor plating. Pointed protrusions that she didn’t recognize were oriented ahead, all dwarfed by a rectangular pod on the thing’s back.
Seir moved one of its limbs back and forth. His tone came out muttered in a depressingly low volume. “I’m seventeen, a legal adult… I mean sure I’m short for my age, but do I truly resemble someone too young to even staff a place as simple as this? It’s my ears isn’t it? People often say I don’t look anything close to authoritative.”
Nan made to apologize, only for Sier to shake his head. The floppy ears did make him look less mature by a mile. “No, no. I’m just being petulant.”
She sincerely hoped that the boy wasn’t holding back frustration built up over a particularly dreadful week. Repressing that kind of crap was bad for the soul. She thought this, fully aware of the fact that she was guilty of the same thing herself. A truck sized weight still rested on her metaphorical shoulders, but “Do as a say and not as I do.” was a popular phrase for a reason.
Seir set the mech down. He examined its freshly broken leg with a measure of resignation before meeting her eyes again. “So, how might I be of assistance?” He produced a monocle from the inside of his robe, paying Nan a cursory glance through an almost comically enlarged purple eye. “You’re reserves look a bit too large to warrant a tome. Would it be fair to assume you’re here for a herald?”
“I am,” Nan said. “Should I be concerned about anything?”
Seir grinned, his previous bit of dourness forgotten. “Not at all. Bonding with a herald is a privilege like no other, you’re not just preserving some random spirit’s life. Right this way, Lady-to-be, I’m sure some of my friends would be willing to lend themselves to you.”
The boy stood, turned, and came nose to nose with a what appeared to be a puppy sized floating deer. Not a lian or a guidance fairy in one’s image, but an actual animal. It had coarse brown fur, a mass of four fox tails, and most definitely was not there a second ago. She caught the back end of a fading whym thread that didn’t feel like Yara’s teleportation spell.
“You just got over your last burnout, you should be asleep.” He held a gravely yet patient voice, it was as though he put forth extra effort to not sound harsh. He also spoke much deeper than his relatively small frame would suggest, but Nan already bore witness to too many anatomical impossibilities to be phased.
“But I’m only thirty minutes over my limit, I’ll be fine.”
The animal sat on a cushion of nothingness, eyes still level with Sier. “Please rest. I will help this woman, or do you not have any faith in me?”
Seir looked between Nan and the entity she really had no name for, boar-fox-buck? Eventually, he gave in with a sigh. “I appreciate it.”
“This is Gawain, a herald. Gawain, this is Nan Beauchamp, she’s reclaimed.”
“Stop stalling Seir.” Gawain booped the boy’s forehead with a hoof.
Seir gave a waning smile before bowing out “If you’ll excuse me,” he said.
Coincidences and weird translation gaffs existed, however… “There’s a story from my home planet about a knight that shares your name.”
Gawain’s eyes shone, literally shone, with recognition. “You must be from the same Earth as my first partner then, he was quite fond of something called the ‘Arthurian tales’.”
Perhaps the barrel of universes wasn’t so wide. “Really? Can I meet him?”
Nan apologized, feeling much the part of an ass for missing the all-important “was”.
Seir already disappeared down a corridor at the left. Gawain led Nan in the opposite direction. Multiple clear glass doors stood on either side of them, some lit, others not. All lead to storage cubicles with boxes of paper and pictureless book covers, pieces of tomes that held no whym.
“What makes you think that?” Nan asked.
“I’ve seen the face you’re making more times than I will ever care to count.” He said.
“Seir is special. Not named but he can forge weak bonds with my kind at once. Just enough to keep us from fading into the Meridian before we can find a more suitable arrangement.” Gawain grumbled something to himself, too quiet to hear. “Nix that. Suitable isn’t the word I should use. I’d grant Seir my full power if given the slightest of chances. He’s saved enough of us to burden his reserves.”
“And he needs to sleep more often because of it.”
The hall split leftwards, ending in a cul-de-sac of rooms with tags plastered to their doors. The one Gawain led Nan into had a circular rug at its center, in one corner, a simple, but comfortable looking dog bed sat, covers strewn aside.
“I apologize for the lack of human accommodations and neglecting to introduce you to the other heralds. I’d prefer for you to forge a bond with me: I’m the one who costs Seir the most trouble.”
“It’s fine,” Nan said, sitting cross-legged on the rug, opposite the herald. “Do we draw chalk circles and burn incense?”
Gawain barked out a short laugh. “You mistake me for a fiend. The process is very simple. Your hand, please.”
Nan’s fingers brushed his hoof.
And the world melted away.