The Captain’s distress was so severe that Parise had difficulty looking at her. She had crawled backward on the deck of her cabin, and all her clothes were disordered.
“I’m sorry. I had no idea that would be your reaction,” Parise said.
The Captain got up with a furious energy and got herself back into order with a few economic pulls and touches.
“That deserves an explanation, of course,” Ngozi Makena Odile said, in a voice without a single touch of distress in it. “It’s been many long years with nothing to remind me of it--and I long ago stopped having those dreams. Before that point, however, it was all I ever dreamed about.”
“Can I conjure you up anything? Water? Gin? Ice-cream soda?” The Queen asked playfully.
Ngozi looked at her levelly. “307 ale cut with Cerenkov water, as long as you’re buying.”
“Heavily cut,” Parise said, handing her a glowing green glass. She took a gulp, then coughed. “I don’t keep it on board with the girls around. Thank you.”
“Now. My story.”
“My parents were citizens of the Greater Haitian Commonwealth, from the state of Seminole, but lived in the United States of America for most of their lives. They were prosperous and well-liked. Which didn’t help them when the pogroms came.”
“Dad was shot trying to get home. When the squads started combing the city, Momma retreated to the one place she knew she would be safe. She had hoped Dad could come to. She was close to term with me. The place was, as you might have guessed, the Universal Library. She had been bringing in supplies since things started getting bad. Including diapers. What she knew for certain was that, when the door closed, it was undetectable, and magic was scoffed at--though the Voodoo of the Haitians was used as a reason to slaughter them all.”
“I was apparently an easy birth.”
“My first year--of course I remembered nothing, but Momma kept me fed and happy--even though she deposited my diapers as far as she dared go into the stacks. But in my second year we finally started running out of supplies--and so she started to prepare to go out and scavenge. I was instructed never, ever to open the door to Out, and when she was gone, to hide back in the stacks--because we both knew what could happen if you went too far In. She was successful for many months--but then her--our--luck ran out.”
“I was hiding in back when I heard the door open--then a lot of noise. There were dark voices that I’d never heard before--the voices of men. I heard Momma scream as they tore her apart.”
“I ran into the stacks as fast as I could--but I was barely two, and tromping and staggering was what passed for me running. That wasn’t the case for my pursuers. But I kept taking turns in the stacks and not crying--far beyond anywhere I’d ever gone. I ran until the monsters got lost in the maze.”
“But I was lost too. Everywhere was just books, books and more books--and Momma had taught me the word ‘book,’ but I didn’t even know the alphabet. Books were just what my prison was made of. And the prison went on forever in all directions.”
“I had nothing. No food, no water. I pissed in corners and pooped my diapers until they stunk so bad I wriggled out of them and wandered naked and stained. I was so thirsty I would fall down dizzy. But I got up again because the Deep Voices would find me and tear me to pieces.”
“It couldn’t have been more than a couple of days or I’d’ve died of thirst--but it felt like weeks. I slept more and more because I couldn’t do anything else. I dreamed of Momma’s voice just down the hallway, and the only thing that ever was really was books.”
“In the end I stumbled, crack-lipped, half-naked and shitstained into the lovely library of a General of the Galactic Patrol on Velantia III, in a universe that had only a tangential relationship to mine. My life was saved, and I was fobbed off by the poor bachelor General to whatever resources a Spartan and segregated military base on a planet filled with dragons had. I flourished after a fashion, and got enrolled at a finishing school on another planet at the Division’s expense--which I quickly escaped to lead a life of crime.”
The Queen leaned forward slightly and lay her open palm before Ngozi. She hesitated, then lay her own hand on top of it, just for a moment.
They both withdrew, and Parise said “Actually being born in the Library Dimension--I can’t think of any other examples--gave you a special bond to it, and it to you. You may be its only citizen. It’s a bit ludicrous to think of it following around, though. You didn’t build this ship though, did you?”
“Nope. Stole it. A beautiful seine trawler--non-human originally, but repurposed by a rich idiot as a joyboat, and who was stupid enough to leave it in orbit with the motor running and the keys still in it. I had it refitted at the Powhatan Shipyards.”
“So you may have been drawn to steal the ship by its Library connections. Or maybe not.”
Parise said, “Let me clarify a few things. I am a Librarian of that universe. That doesn’t mean I created it, or even understand it all that well, but I am decent at navigating it, and can authorize access to others. I gave Jeanette Ransom a key to the Library, and it was that key that helped her find this portal. It’s also how I came aboard.”
“But the other part is that there is a mystery of the Library. You can take out any books you want, and there are no overdue fines or anything like that--but if you ever find the book that is the story of your life--the Book of You--you will, as the saying goes, ‘softly and suddenly vanish away/and never be heard from again.’ Aventine Marie Arouet du Châtelet is one of those poor Lost Ones--but somehow Jack Shift, after tens of thousands of years of searching in vain by such as us, managed to stumble across her. This has become a very strange puzzle indeed--involving Jeanette and Terence Ransom, their white-gloved friends, the Library--and now, it seems, you.”
“As I said before,” the Pirate Queen of the Night said, “I welcome any supercargo who can make hostile space fleets vanish, and I like your company. However, puzzles of this sort make my head hurt, the more so when I’m a piece. So I’ll thank you to let me know when you’ve solved it, and not before. And now, having told you a story I’ve only told once before in my long and richly exciting life, I’m going to finish off that 307.”
“And who did you tell it to before?” Parise asked.
“The father of the crew of this ship. And don’t, ‘cause I won’t.”
The Queen rose. “I’m going to check on Jeanette. I’m sure the aforementioned crew will have tortured her to distraction for having missed all the fun.”
“And rightly so.”
The Queen of Broceliande stood in the passageway, sadness washing over her. The Library, for all its dangers, was such a source of joy and wonder to so many beings--but to imagine being lost in it being too young to read…
...But another thought crossed her mind, that she might be able to find out who gave Ngozi’s mother a Key. Not here, though: she would have to return to Broceliande to put that inquiry in motion.
Grandmère Hutan walked on the deck of the Paradox Swan. She was uncommonly restless tonight. She didn’t feel it was the aftermath of a battle, although that usually did it. And there was certainly enough happening, but when had that not been true?
She looked at the slowly moving sky. Maybe it was that there was a neutrino ship ten times the size of the Swan following right on top of them, that they couldn’t even see or detect except on the most exotic of sensors? Well, that might be it.
Toward the prow of the ship she saw a flicker of green light. It might be Wynken, Blynken or Nod at work, but she decided to go look.
Another flicker, and it went out again. She rounded one of the masts--and broke into a full orangutan run.
Terence Ransom lay on the deck, completely unmoving--looking quite dead. His shirt was torn.
There was a flicker, and there was a glowing green sword through his chest.
A flicker, and it was gone.