Darren Ault woke up in pitch darkness, which was a little odd, because he was quite certain that he was dead.
He reached up, tentatively, and felt his face for gunshot wounds. Finding none, he sat up, blinking, and began to move his hands around. This was done with considerable trepidation. He was understandably curious about his surroundings, but at the same time, the problem with darkness is that anything could be in it with you, and you’d never know until it was too late. As far as he knew, he could be sitting in a tiger’s lair, the tiger’s dark-adapted eyes already sizing him up and deciding which parts of him would be the tenderest. He could be in a basement, at the mercy of the gangs that his mother had repeatedly warned him about during his childhood in the Capitol Hill area of Seattle. Worse still, his high school chum Lee McCaskill could still be there, somewhere, maybe wearing night-vision goggles, with the neat little pistol aimed at his forehead, just like it had been only minutes ago.
It would have been fairly clear to most people that these hypotheses about what might be there in the dark were mutually exclusive. It was not to Darren. Darren was the type of person who was perfectly capable of keeping several mutually exclusive fears in his brain simultaneously, and being equally afraid of them all. But it was also apparent that whatever horrors might await him in the dark, he couldn’t just sit where he was forever. For one thing, the floor seemed to be made of tile, and was hard, uncomfortable, and cold. And for another, he was (much to his own surprise) beginning to be more curious than afraid.
This was largely because however impossible it seemed, Darren had evidently survived being shot in the head, not only without dying, but without injury. He had felt the bullet strike his forehead – the sensation had been pressure rather than pain, and over in a flash – but now there was not so much as a scratch on him, much less the kind of wound that a point-blank gunshot to the head would cause.
Honestly, he should have been dead, and missing a considerable portion of the top of his skull.
“Wait,” he said aloud. “Maybe I am dead. Maybe I’m a ghost.” That explanation immediately made sense to him, but it raised a host of new fears, all of which crowded about him in the darkness, vying for his attention. “I’m dead,” he repeated, as if trying the idea out. “I’m a ghost.” He squinted, but still could make out nothing in the dark. Were ghosts able to see? He thought they were, but who really knew about ghosts? To be propelled into the afterlife, but to find oneself unable to see, would seriously suck. Maybe that’s why ghosts bump around so much, he thought. They run into things.
Darren got to his feet, a bit stiffly, and took one step forward. There was a whirring noise, and a loud click, and the lights came on.
He gave a feeble little scream and whirled around, but there was no one there, or at least no one that he could see. More likely, it was some sort of motion-activated lighting. The light came from overhead. It had that pale, glassy look that fluorescents give off, but the ceilings were so impossibly high that he couldn’t see the fixtures.
He looked around, and recognized his surroundings instantaneously. He was between two long rows of shelves, lined with books. Only one sort of place looked like this; as improbable as it seemed, he was in a library. This was peculiar, but preferable to tigers, gangs, or an armed Lee McCaskill, and he gave a little shudder and a sigh of relief. It still didn’t remove the possibility that he was a ghost, but at least he could see, and he reasoned, philosophically, that there were worse places to haunt than a library. At least he could count on its being quiet.
He went up to the row of shelves on his right. The shelves were the typical metal affairs you find in an average library, but there were several odd differences. First, the shelves were far taller than ordinary; he looked up, squinting, and could not see the tops. They receded upwards to the vanishing point, merging with the diffuse light coming from overhead. Second, the books were all of uniform height and coloration – bound in what looked like crimson naugahyde -- and all of the ones he could see had the same legend, printed on the spine: RICHARD PRESTON THATCHER, born 18 March 1832, Scarborough, England.
In smaller print, beneath this, was a seemingly random series of numbers and letters.
Darren reached out, and selected the book that was at the end of the shelf on his eye level, and opened it up to a random page. Each page had a date; this one was July 19, 1858. He read:
“… and feeling the need to finish the job that he had left incomplete because of falling ill with the flu the previous week, he skipped the Sunday church services, and taking a ladder, went up onto his roof to continue replacing shingles that had been torn off in the storm the previous month…”
He flipped ahead a few pages. An entry for May 2, 1860 said:
“… he overslept that day, and his wife was unhappy with him. He ate breakfast, finishing at a little before ten o’clock, then went out and fed the chickens. His wife had already milked the cows, and she told him that she was angry about his oversleeping…”
He went ahead a few more pages. More trivia about country life. If this was a novel, it was a singularly dull one; no dialogue, no apparent plot, just a list of the daily occurrences in the life of some country farmer in 19th century England.
He flipped to the last page. It only had a few lines.
“The doctor, Andrew Smithfield (TYH149087-1011) came to attend to him, but was unable to bring down his fever. He became unconscious at 3:02 in the afternoon on September 29, 1864, and died without ever regaining consciousness. His wife and all of his children, as well as Dr. Smithfield, were there.”
And below that final paragraph was the following:
END TRACKING CODE ZCV781540-4891 (ALTERNATE)
Darren closed the book, frowning in complete incomprehension, and put it back on the shelf. Then he looked around a little, hoping that something would appear that would make sense of this place.
And that was when he noticed a third odd thing about the shelves. In between each of the sets of shelves was a handle with a black plastic grip, sticking out of a slot. Above and below the slot were arrows, one pointing up, one pointing down. Darren was not normally someone who was given to messing with things for no good reason – it never seemed to end well – but today was not a normal day. He reached out one hand, and pulled downward on the lever.
There was a groaning noise, as some large machine underneath the floor kicked into action, and the shelves began to descend into the floor, bringing new ones downward from the heights. Darren understood immediately; the shelves were on some kind of vertical conveyor belt, so that the upper ones could be accessed without a ladder. You simply pulled on the handle, and the shelves came to you.
He let the shelves descend for nearly a minute, curious to see if there was an end – or at least a change – to all of these rows and rows of identical books. It didn’t appear that there was. But suddenly he saw that some of the books rumbling by did have a minor difference; running down the spine of several shelves’ worth was a gold stripe.
He released the lever, and with a grating noise, the shelves stopped moving. He leaned forward, and looked at the gold-striped volumes. The spines still had the same legend – the name Richard Preston Thatcher, with a set of numbers – but there was that little strip of gold foil pressed into the spine. He pulled the last of the gold-embossed books from the shelf, and opened it to the last page. The date was July 19, 1858. He read:
“… and feeling the need to finish the job that he had left incomplete because of falling ill with the flu the previous week, he skipped the Sunday church services, and taking a ladder, went up onto his roof to continue replacing shingles that had been torn off in the storm the previous month. He had only been working for five minutes when he caught the toe of his shoe on a loose shingle, lost his balance, and fell off the roof. He broke his neck and died instantaneously.”
This was followed by:
END TRACKING CODE ZCV781540-8103 (ACTUAL)
There was a slight noise behind him, and Darren whirled around, once again giving a little shriek. The book tumbled from his fingers, and landed upside down on the floor.
Standing a few feet away from him was a young man, perhaps twenty-five years old. He had straight, white-blond hair that fell lankly across his forehead, partly obscuring his eyes, which were large, long-lashed, and pale blue. His face was narrow and clean-shaven, and he had a black stud in his right nostril, and three rings in his left ear. He wore an overlarge black t-shirt with a drawing of a kitten with enormous eyes, one of which had a bright blue teardrop suspended below it. The overall effect gave him the appearance of an emo elf.
“Who the hell are you?” the elf said.
“Darren Ault,” Darren said. “Where am I?”
The elf ignored the question. “How did you get here?”
“I don’t know. Lee killed me, and then I was here. Is this heaven?”
The elf scowled. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he said.
“You don’t seem the type that would ever do much of anything that would merit hell,” the elf observed.
“Well, then, where am I?”
“You’re in the Library.”
“Okay, I can see that. What kind of library?”
The elf didn’t answer, just turned and began to walk quickly down the aisle. Darren heard him mutter, “I’m going to kick some ass in security over this,” as he walked.
Darren had always hated to put anyone out, and however inadvertently, his presence seemed to be causing the elf a considerable level of distress. “Look,” he said, and began to follow, jogging to catch up. “I’m sorry. I’ll leave if you can tell me how.”
“You can’t,” the elf said, without turning. “It’s not that simple.”
“Who are you?” Darren said, a little louder than he generally spoke. This brought the elf to a halt. He turned, and faced Darren, his bright blue eyes rolling upwards a little, in disdain, and he gave a harsh little sigh.
“I really don’t have time for this,” he said. “The idiots up in security seem to have fucked up big time, and I’ve got to make sure that it’s not worse than it seems.” He looked Darren up and down. “And it seems pretty bad already. But three questions. I’ll give you three questions. Then you need to shut up, stay out of the way, and let me do my job.”
Darren swallowed. “What is this place?”
“It’s a library.”
“I know that. You told me that. What kind of library?” Darren put up one hand. “And that only counts as one question.”
“I know that. You told me that. What kind of library?” Darren put up one hand. “And that only counts as one question.”
The elf sighed again. “Fine. It’s the Library of Timelines. And no, I’m not going to explain what that means, because it would take too long. Next question.”
“Who are you?”
“My name is Fischer. I’m the Head Librarian. Although on days like this, I wish I had listened to my father and gone into manufacturing.”
“Okay, Mr. Fischer. And last… Why am I here? I’m sure I should be dead. I got shot point-blank in the forehead.”
“Drop the ‘Mr.’ crap. It’s just Fischer. And I don’t know why you’re here. That’s one of the many things I’ve got to find out.” He reached up and rubbed his eyes with an angry little gesture, and brushed his hair back. It immediately fell forward again. “Just as soon as I twist off a few heads in security. And put some coffee on.” He turned, and began to walk away down the hall. Darren trotted after him again. Just as they reached the end of the aisle, and Fischer turned right and headed toward what appeared to be an office, he muttered, “Jesus, days like this just make me want to puke.”
Fischer pushed the door open with what seemed like unnecessary force, and Darren followed him in. The office was a mess – there was an old-fashioned mahogany desk in the middle, home to a telephone, a computer, and a number of untidy piles of paper; a filing cabinet stood with one drawer open because it was stuffed so full of file folders that it wouldn’t close; and a number of cardboard boxes sat on the floor, some with their lids askew, seemingly filled with more papers and manila folders. Fischer swiveled the desk chair around, and a large ginger tomcat vacated the chair with an aggrieved meow, then jumped up onto the desk and began to wash himself, only giving one momentary glance about the room to see if everyone appreciated how little the disturbance had bothered his equanimity.
Fischer didn’t so much sit down as to drape himself over the chair, and reached over and tapped a few of the keys on the computer. There was a chiming noise as the computer started to rouse itself from sleep. He then reached over, picked up the telephone, and punched in three numbers.
“Maggie?” he said, after a brief pause. “Can you get down here? We got a problem.” There was another brief pause, and Fischer rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I know, but the filing will have to wait. We got a problem. A big problem. One I’m gonna have to talk to Anbeinder about.” Another pause. “Well, of course it’s because there’s been a breach. Why else would I want to talk to Anbeinder? I don’t talk to him for the stimulating conversation.” He sighed. “Look, just get down here and see for yourself. And did you put the coffee on?” Only a moment’s pause this time. “Good. Can you bring me a cup?”
Fischer hung the phone up, and began to type in commands on the computer. Darren, finding himself ignored, looked around the office. There was a calendar, tacked crookedly to the wall on the other side of the room, depicting a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, but Darren noted with a frown that the calendar was open to the page for February 1982. A series of post-it notes were affixed to the wall next to where Darren was sitting. These had various scrawls, most of them either too far away to read without being obvious about it, and some in a handwriting so bad as to be nearly indecipherable. He noted that one of the nearer ones read, “Fix linear time sequencing, First Battle of Bull Run, possible divergence,” and almost asked Fischer what that meant, but the librarian was scowling so darkly at the computer screen that Darren didn’t dare interrupt him.
Darren’s eyes dropped to the desk, and he noted that in the midst of the piles of paper, barely visible, was a nameplate. It read, “Archibald Fischer. Head Librarian.”
Darren looked at the Librarian in some amazement, and spoke before he could stop himself.
“Archibald? Your first name is Archibald?” he asked, the incredulity clear in his voice.
Fischer looked up, his lips tightening and his scowl deepening even further. “I told you. My name is Fischer. Just plain Fischer. Now shut up and let me do my job, before I send you to the north wing, where we keep the records for medieval China, and have you spend the afternoon doing a little light reading.” He looked back down, muttering, “My parents couldn’t name me for my other grandfather. No. Jim wasn’t aristocratic enough. Fuck.”
The door opened, and a woman came in, carrying a cup of coffee. The woman looked to be in that indeterminate age between fifty and sixty-five. Everything about her was round – her face, her body, the severe bun into which her hair was fixed, even her glasses. But far from seeming like a rotund Mrs. Claus figure, there was a grim cut to the lines of her face that gave her more the look of a guard from a women’s prison. Darren was intimidated by most people, but this woman had a presence which radiated intimidation. It was hard to imagine not being intimidated by her.
The ginger tom, on the other hand, seemed to immediately recognize a kindred spirit, and jumped down off the desk, and began to twine around her legs. The woman gave a chilly little smile of recognition, said, in a voice with a rolling Scottish accent, “Now, don’t make me spill this coffee, Ivan, there’s a good puss.” She set the coffee down on the desk.
Fischer looked up, and gestured toward Darren. The woman turned, as if noticing his presence for the first time, and scanned him from head to toe. “See what I mean, Maggie?” Fischer said.
“Where’d you find him?”
“19th century Britain. He just sort of appeared there, claiming that he was dead.”
“Curious. His appearance didn’t set off the security alarms?”
“Not that I know of. Of course, they could all be napping up there, as usual. I haven’t checked it out yet. I just happened to blunder into him. I was heading to my office this morning, and saw the light was on, and went to investigate. Lucky he appeared where he did. If he’d suddenly popped into existence over in the southeast corner of ancient Peru, or somewhere like that, he might have wandered for days before anyone knew he was here.”
“And he just materialized?” Maggie said.
“Actually,” interrupted Darren, “I was shot in the head, and then I materialized.”
The two of them simultaneously turned their heads and glared at him, but didn’t respond. Darren flushed, and said, “Sorry,” in a small voice, and the two turned back toward each other.
“Anyway,” Fischer said, “he says he doesn’t know how he got here. Either he doesn’t remember, or he’s lying.”
Maggie turned and looked at him appraisingly, one thin eyebrow raised slightly. “He hasn’t the look of a spy.”
“I’m not a spy!” Darren exclaimed, once again unable to keep himself from speaking. “Look, Maggie, I don’t care what he says, I wasn’t spying!”
Now both of the woman’s eyebrows went up. “The Librarian calls me Maggie. You call me Mrs. Carmichael.”
Darren said, “Sorry,” again, and subsided into silence.
Fischer drummed his long fingers on the desk, and then took a sip of his coffee. “I think the problem here is threefold. First, how do we fix whatever monumental fuckup got him here in the first place? Second, how do we get him back where he belongs? And third, does he already know more than he should?”
“The answer to the third question is probably yes, but I don’t know what we can do about it. And honestly, Fischer, maybe you should find out more of his story. It could be relevant that he seems so insistent that he’s dead.”
“Maybe. If he’s telling the truth. I wonder if Anbeinder still has those torture devices he swiped when he took that vacation in 16th century Spain? They may come in handy.”
Darren’s eyes widened. “Now, wait a minute,” he gulped out. They turned and looked at him. “I am telling the truth, I swear. My friend, Lee McCaskill, shot me in the forehead. I have no idea why. He was over at my apartment, and seemed upset about something. I asked what was wrong, and he said, ‘it’s nothing that this won’t fix,’ and pulled out a pistol and shot me in the head. And I woke up here. That’s really all I know.”
Maggie looked at Fischer. “Have you checked the database records?”
“I was in the process of doing that when you got here.” He looked over at Darren. “Full name?”
“Darren Michael Ault.”
Fischer typed into the computer. Maggie went around the desk, and peered over his shoulder, frowning through her thick glasses. With a little more trepidation, Darren rose, and joined them. He half expected them to order him to sit down again, but they didn’t, and when he looked at the screen, he saw a list of several entries for “Ault, Darren Michael,” followed by a string of numbers and letters, similar to what he’d seen in the books.
“When and where were you born?”
“Seattle, Washington, September 16, 1984.”
Fischer typed that in. Within seconds, the screen blinked, and the message, “NO VALID ACTUAL TRACK CODE. ACCESS ALTERNATE TRACKS?” appeared.
Both Maggie and Fischer made small noises of surprise.
“What? What does that mean?” Darren squeaked.
“Well, on its simplest level, it means that you don’t exist,” Fischer said. “Which makes it kind of perplexing that you’re here, ruining my morning.”
“Try the murderer, his alleged friend,” Maggie suggested.
“What was the name of the guy who shot you?” Fischer asked, without looking up.
“Middle name? Do you know birthplace or birthdate?”
“I think his middle name is Allen or Alan. I don’t know his birthdate, but he was born in Spokane, Washington.”
Fischer typed in the information. There were more entries for Lee Allen McCaskill than there had been for Darren Michael Ault, but the birthplace information narrowed it down to one. Fischer clicked on the entry.
Once again, the message, “NO VALID ACTUAL TRACK CODE. ACCESS ALTERNATE TRACKS?” appeared.
“Uh-oh,” Fischer said.
Maggie looked over at Darren. “Who is the current president of the United States?” she asked.
“Barack Obama,” Darren said.
“Of course,” Maggie said. “The gentleman with the two cute little girls. Middle name’s Hussein, Fischer, I remember that horrid woman making such a big deal out of it, what’s her name? Oh, yes, Ann Coulter.”
Fischer typed in the information.
“NO VALID ACTUAL TRACK CODE. ACCESS ALTERNATE TRACKS?”
“Okay, this is bad,” Fischer said. He looked up at Maggie, his large blue eyes wide.
He looked back down, and typed in “Britney Spears,” and after a few clicks, once again got the same message.
“Shit,” Fischer said, his voice awestruck, and, Darren thought, more than a little frightened.
“What? What’s happened?” Darren said.
Fischer swiveled his chair around, and for the first time, looked Darren in the face. “Well,” he said, “it’s a bit premature to make this conclusion, only having a sample size of four, but given that it’s hard to imagine an event that would include yourself, your murderer friend, President Obama, and Britney Spears that didn’t include everyone else in the world, I’m going to hazard a guess. This McCaskill character who shot you seems to have generated some sort of temporal paradox.”
Fischer leaned back in his chair, and closed his eyes, and didn’t respond.
“It means,” Maggie said quietly, “that somehow what your friend did made the entire population of the earth cease to exist.”