Kieren waited for me. Or at least it seemed that way for as I arrived, a familiar strong hand pulled me up to my feet. Rubbing at my eyes, I swayed for a moment, taking in the scene. Kieren stood immediately in front of me dressed in his black training gear, a carefully neutral expression on his face though I immediately noticed the tightness around his shoulders.
I looked beyond Kieren’s gaze to the individuals directly behind him; an unknown Administrator in a gray uniform, the state of his tentacles putting him at a rather mature age, and Master Ral. Master Ral was half my size, entirely without hair, dark-skinned, with eyes of bright blue. Those eyes were assessing me calmly, but I felt Kieren’s tension as he stood in front of me, as if to shield me from the Master and the Administrator. I had arrived via the node point, tucked away in the corner of the second floor and used for Guardian official business only. That I had a welcoming committee was very interesting as I understood that it was impossible to track anyone’s Arrival, or so I’d always been led to believe.
“Guardian Wren Oridian,” Master Ral said in a rolling deep voice. “You are to follow me.”
I glanced at Kieren but he gave nothing away, not meeting my gaze. Keeping the questions to myself, I followed Master Ral without a word.
We walked along a short passageway towards heavy double wooden doors that led out of the secure area and into a main thoroughfare. Massive glass windows lined the hall along the left side, the evening glow of a setting sun illuminating the space in soft orange and yellow light, casting shadows along the smoothly polished stone floors. My heels clicked along the stone, echoing, and I wondered how long I’d been gone.
Gaining another pair of doors, I followed Master Ral into the busier main hall. Individuals stopped and stared, watching us as we moved through the crowd. I recognized a few faces, but the majority were Collectors and Administrators, both of which I knew very few. It wasn’t that they knew me, or that they knew my story, it was that a Master was in their midst and leading, Kieren, clearly a Guardian, and me, an unknown individual dressed as a human from the early 20th century. The rumors would now begin in earnest, even if no one knew about my “kidnapping.”
Master Ral walked with a steady pace, ignoring everyone, leading us away from the main area and into a section of the Citadel I had never been before. This was not unusual as most of us stayed in our section of the massive building as there was no need to visit the other areas. The building was a continuous line creating an octagon surrounding a large interior courtyard separated into different sections. Each piece of the of octagon contained a specific branch of the Realm, where the training, lodging, and administration of that branch was located. Master Ral was currently leading us in the opposite direction of the Guardian section where I had arrived, and towards the area that housed the Master’s temporary quarters, set aside for when they visited the Citadel.
The area seemed older than the Guardian or even the Collector wings. The floors were still stone but worn down into grooves, the tapestries along the walls heavy and a bit more faded. Dark fell, and floating lanterns automatically engaged above our head. Several antiques lined the corridor, items that I was unable to identify without closer examination but looked to represent many different evolutions of many different species. Nothing, however, prepared me for the four-story circular room that Master Ral eventually led us to. There, the number of scrolls lining the walls counted in the millions. I stopped on the threshold and stared upwards into the gloom. Lights floated about the interior, mobilized to allow for continuous illumination and I saw that the records reached up to the top, only broken by the ladders and the three large windows viewing the darkness of the courtyard. During the day, the light from those windows was likely massive and all-encompassing.
Master Ral sat down at a heavy wooden desk in towards the middle, settling into the large wooden chair behind it before indicating that Kieren and I should join him in the smaller wooden chairs directly opposite. Taking our seats, I stilled as Master Ral stared at me, his blue eyes hard to look at, though I endured it without fidgeting, especially as my improvised thigh holster was digging into skin and muscle.
“Would you like to explain?” he asked after a moment.
I hardly wanted to explain, not really. There was a definite aura of being placed on trial, which made me immediately defensive and the Master sitting across from me was not helping the situation; however, outside of flat out denying the story, there was not much else to be done about it, so I told him.
Kieren’s considerable attention hung on my every word and I glanced over at him occasionally as my story unfolded. His expression remained hard to read, his body language of someone at ease with the situation and the story I told, and it was only when I mentioned the Traveler that he tensed. I wondered with a flash of paranoia if Kieren knew about the manipulation but dismissed the idea as soon as I thought of it, labeling it absurd.
Finishing, silence descended, and I watched and waited for Master Ral’s reaction.
There was none. His face gave nothing away and the longer he stared at me with those neutral bright eyes, the harder it became to stay still and not start confessing things that never even happened.
“You don’t know what happened to him?” The Administrator interrupted the silence, its considerable bulk near the door.
I looked towards it, slightly startled having forgotten that the Administrator was also in attendance. “Who?”
“The Archivist, of course.”
I shook my head. “I don’t. He was there, and then he wasn’t there. My interface rebooted and I came here, where you all met me.” There was a question in my statement though everyone ignored it.
“This is a complicated situation, very complicated,” Master Ral began, bringing my attention back to him. I very much understood how the story I told could cause all sorts of complications, but his gaze seemed to pin me to my chair, and I had a distinct feeling that I was the complication, not the situation. Master Ral continued. “The circumstances what they are, I am temporarily relieving you of your duties until we conclude a more formal investigation.”
I nodded despite my unease. That they did not react to the assassination story created questions that pecked at the back of my brain, though I did my best to ignore the questions and focus on the now. It appeared as if I would have plenty of uninterrupted time to pursue any train of thought.
Master Ral switched his intense gaze to Kieren. “Additionally, Guardian Kieren Taninian, as requested, you are being reassigned to another Guardian.”
I stared, the words circling about my head before landing with a thud. Something shifted in my stomach. As Guardians, we were assigned from the second cycle of our training to a partner who we then trained, ate, and slept near throughout the remaining six cycles of training. Only upon graduation were there separations, like different living quarters, but by then separation was harder than being together. That was the point of the training. To separate Guardian partners was to severe a carefully nurtured bond required for assignments.
My mind flashed to the Rushielian debacle.
Kieren sat forward, his profile giving nothing away. “Respectfully, sir, I would prefer to wait,” he said.
Master Ral stared at Kieren, studying him for a moment. “Administrator B’jin, please escort Guardian Wren to her quarters.” He pointed to Kieren. “You will stay, I wish to have a word.”
There was nothing to be done. I controlled my panic out of habit, keeping my face neutral because it was my default when faced with an unknown and difficult situation, but I felt the pressure of the future pushing me towards the ground. I followed the Administrator’s large body out of the room without another word and without looking at Kieren, who remained seated staring impassively at Master Ral.
The walk to my quarters was a blur and once in my room, I absently sat on my bed, kicking my low-heeled shoes off, and stared at the stone wall thinking of what just happened, allowing my brain to circle for any sign of logic. Understanding remained elusive as I glanced around my chambers. The room was as I left it, the messed bed with too many pillows, clothing spread out along the lounge chair in the corner, desk covered in books and scrolls. It was a small space, but my space, one that I would usually retreat to after an assignment with a kind of familiar comfort.
Right then, the room felt foreign.
To me, it felt like a day had passed, but accessing my interface, it indicated more than three days. Three full sun cycles had passed between the time I’d been released from the medical wing, and now, sitting in my room, questions circling and circling my brain. The feeling of the unknown, of being untethered reminded me of earlier days, of days before my decision to become a Guardian, when I trained as a Collector and I would wander through the courtyards in the middle of the night and wonder about all that I was learning, all that I was reading, questioning the process, the effectiveness, the reason why. A Collector collected the stories and I had started to realize that I could not handle the totality of the position, the requirements of leaving myself out of the story, to only record what is witnessed, not what it was that I felt. I couldn’t separate myself from the reality, the stories as told to me. A Collector collected stories, without personal emotional interjection or influence but I was unable to make myself impartial.
After experiencing the complexity and intricacies of Collector training, Guardian training had felt simple. Felt clean in the way there were parameters and rules, and a Guardian operated within those parameters and rules. And when I had paired with Kieren, things had progressed even further, and I had felt secure for the first time since coming into the Realm.
But now I was at sea.
A hollow and empty feeling in my gut. An ache at the base of my spine as if someone was pushing there. And the inability to access my feeling center, as if I was cut off from tears that I should have been crying.
I rubbed at the spot between my eyes, reminding myself that I was not permanently suspended; I was not permanently without a partner; this was a temporary thing that would be cleared up upon investigation. I had done absolutely nothing wrong. I was a victim of circumstances. They would see that, and then it would be fine.
Tirius was still in this timeline and he might have been already talking, already clearing my name, and though how that would fit into the current timeline I was a little hazy about, things would return to the way they were, and Kieren and I would be off to another assignment.
The assassination, though, I thought. What had happened with the assassination? Was the Traveler an abnormality, outside the parameters of normality? Had a Traveler caused the world wars that so decimated the human timeline?
What would have happened if Tirius and I had stopped the Traveler from ever making contact? Would the events still have occurred? And if they hadn’t what other chain of events would have happened? We were taught to never make changes to the timeline. That was why it was so important for a Collector to remain uninvolved with the stories they collected. It was essential that the experiments were not tampered with, but it sure seemed as if the human timeline had been manipulated; if not to the extent of creating wars, enough that surely the Traveler in question should be under review.
A soft bell alerted me to someone at the door. For a moment I thought to ignore it, but instincts prevailed, and I got up from my spot on the bed, smoothing out my features once more to show whoever was at the door that I was neutral and disinterested. I expected to see an Administrator or even Master Ral, but it was Kieren, his face carefully expressionless as he looked down at me. He was always the taller one, by almost a foot, and right then seemed larger, far away, faded. At some point in that small window of time, he’d changed clothing and was now dressed in a long black tunic and black trousers. He had his hair pulled into a braid down his back and a satchel crisscrossed his chest.
“An assignment already?” I asked without inviting him in. There was something final about his appearance, as if this was a goodbye that was just barely allowed.
“Yes, from Master Ral.”
I wanted to ask if it was dangerous. I wanted to ask where and when was the assignment, and if he’d be assigned a new partner or if he was going solo. I wanted to ask him why he seemed very far away and what Master Ral had said after I left, and if he was the one that had requested the transfer.
“You know this will work out, right?” he said in an even and matter of fact voice.
I wasn’t sure, not really, but at the same time, I wasn’t sure what to say. He seemed to understand, a ghost of a smile playing across his face.
“It will,” he said, and then he pulled me into a hug. I stiffened, surprised. Though we were partners we rarely touched, an unspoken rule between us. But the hug continued, a moment, then another and I put my arms up to return it, resting my head against his chest for a breath,
He smelled of cold air and cedar.
I closed my eyes, inhaling, feeling.
I felt a pressure at my side.
Tilting his head down, I felt his exhale along my hairline, across my cheek. “You are not safe here. You need to get out as soon as you can.” His words were a sigh, barely a sound. Pulling back, looking down, he scanned my face. Again, I had the feeling there was something different in the gaze, something I was unable to categorize. I bit down hard on the questions as he barely shook his head at me and stepped back.
“Good luck,” I said to cover up the surge of nerves in my belly, the sudden feeling of loss that tripped through my chest.
Then he turned and walked away.
Not watching him leave, I closed the door to my rooms and went to the lavatory where I thought there was less of a chance of anything being recorded. Staring at myself in the mirror, seeing but not seeing the 1914 version of myself, the green and blues of the bathroom a sea-like backdrop, I put my interface into sleep mode. Theoretically, that was supposed to turn off all external communication, allowing for sleep, but I now wondered if that was even possible. It was as much privacy as I could create though, and I pulled out a thin slip of actual paper that Kieren had placed between my belt and dress.
It said one phrase: In the belly of the Archives.
I dropped the paper into the toilet, closed the lid and hit the incinerator button.
Apparently, I needed to get into the Archives, but at the same time, Kieren had said I wasn’t safe. I trusted Kieren with my life. With my everything. That was the nature of Guardian partners.
But. I needed to get to the Archives.
I unbuckled the dress’s belt and pulled the early 20th-century dress over my head, finally unstrapping the holster and staff from my thigh. I left the dress on the floor but put my weapon to the side, staring into the mirror once more before deciding on the quickest shower of my life. Adrenaline low-key pumped through my system as I hurried in the hot water, finally cleansing myself of the different kidnappings, the dirt, grime, and less tangible things washing down the drain.
Emerging dripping, I hurried to the massive closet on the other side of the bathroom. Scanning the closet, most of the clothing was from past assignments, cataloged and hanging in saved bags. All clothing and costumes were easily recreated for assignments, but I had started to collect the different pieces, cycles of assignments arrayed in precise rows within the closet.
I ignored the assignment clothing, standing naked among the rows of bags for a moment before making the decision to go with a neutral all-black look. The official Guardian uniform was a black tunic over black trousers with a lining of red along the sleeves and pant legs. Made of loose and smooth material, the uniform was to train and work in. The clothing I picked was of the same design and material but was without ornament or anything to identify me as a Guardian. Pulling it on, the familiarity of the clothing helped center and ground me, and I stood in the middle of the closet with closed eyes, taking deep and even breaths.
The precipice. I knew the feeling, but it was one that I had never fully embraced.
I opened my eyes and took stock, choosing black boots that laced up my calves but leaving the heavier coat that matched. It was spring, the warmth already cloying, and though I wasn’t sure where I was headed other than to the Archives, the extra fabric would likely be more of a hindrance than a help. But I would not leave without weapons. I touched the front of one of the three drawers that were inlayed within the wall. The front slowly opened to reveal several different kinds of weapons and gadgets. Weapons were always necessary on assignment. Some species displayed their weapons proudly and prominently and used them proudly as well, but most timelines required a subtle approach, which included easily hidden devices that slipped up sleeves, along calve muscles and into holsters at the small of backs.
I chose two long stiletto type knives, strapping them to both calves just under the boot lip, and two very small stars at my right forearm underneath the tunic. My usual staff waited for me where I’d left it and I picked out a comfortable back harness that I secured around my torso against my skin, the staff nestled into the curve of my lower back. Weapons secure, I hoped to have no need for them, but instincts propelled me along, the assassination echoing and echoing in the back of my mind as I prepared.
I glanced at my reflection, the mirror showing a slight human-like woman with freckled skin, gray eyes, brown hair, dressed entirely in black, with an equally black expression.
I neutralized my expression, dropping my tongue from the roof of my mouth, relaxing my jaw and around my eyes, watching my reflection’s face smooth out into neutrality. Glancing around the room one last time, I left without bothering to lock the door.
The Archives were close to where Master Ral had taken me earlier, but instead of retracing my steps, I went the long way through the Guardian wing and into the Administrator wing. It was a few hours after peak, the moon bright and insistent through the tall windows, the halls empty except for the occasional individual. I kept my eyes relaxed, roaming, not so much to be suspicious but enough to know if anyone was noticing me. But, no one seemed to pay any attention and I got to the main doors of the Archives without incident. Pulling the heavy wooden door open I stepped into the perpetual gloom. The immediate space was massive, six stories high, the ceiling completely lost in shadows, smelling of must, books, and ink. A horseshoe-shaped circulation desk, cubbies, and offices took up one half of the large room, the other half filled with long tables that, even in the middle of the night, were occupied by random individuals studying and working. It was a place for Collectors, their home base, with the Archivist overseeing it all. The actual archives were located behind the desk, into a darkness that descended for miles and miles. All the collections were written out on various mediums and stored within the vast reach of the Archives. The collections were so numerous that no one, including Tirius, had ever fully cataloged or even laid eyes on the full collection. All the experiments, all the timelines, all the outcomes, and disasters and successes were represented within the halls that reached back so distant as to take days to find the end.
A Diax was sitting behind the desk typing something out in front of it on an invisible keypad. I walked by, keeping my footstep silent, but as the Archives were open to all in the realm, I figured I wouldn’t be stopped until I was, the Diax’s voice gravelly between us as it commended that I go no further.
The Diax looked vaguely apologetic, though I was likely assigning the emotion to it as there was no way to really tell without having them communicate it. The Diax’s emotions and feelings never played out on their scaled faces, which made them particularly apt at their position as Administrators and Collectors.
“I’m forbidden to access the archives?” I asked, clarifying because I had never heard that happen before.
The Diax’s tentacles waved slightly, as if in apology, though I knew I imagined that response, putting my human emotions on it. “Yes. All-access rights have been removed at this time.”
I nodded slowly.
“You are to direct any questions that you may have to Master Ral,” it continued.
“Of course,” I managed, already trying to figure out how I was going to get into the belly of the Archives without the ability to go in through the front door.
Turning, I started for the exit, but the Diax stopped me again.
“Wait. I have something for you.” It shuffled from behind the desk and made its way towards me. Tentacle extended, it handed me a small pinky file, very similar to the one that Tirius had shown me but never given me.
I took it. It was so small, thin, barely there and I held it gently, not sure what to do with it.
“What is it?” I asked.
“A data file.”
“Yes, of course. What kind of data file?”
Diax shook its entire body, a swinging motion. “No idea. It was left for you several cycles ago if we at the circulation desk ever saw you come in. You’ve not been here for a while.” The last comment was a reproach, or at least it sounded that way.
“Cycles ago?” I asked, wondering if it really had been that long since I visited.
It nodded and then turned, dismissing me. I stared at the drive, and then carefully palmed it. Cycles ago, which could mean anything at all, and without the knowledge of how to access the data on it, the file did me absolutely no good.
I needed to get into the Archives.
It was possible that I could gain access to the Archives through Tirius’s office. He had a private elevator that descended directly to the stacks. Likely, however, that office was being watched, and I only knew of one other way to get in and that involved a theoretical tunnel that no one really knew about, the entrance being in a theoretical location somewhere outside the Citadel walls that again, no one really knew about.
I took a door leading outside rather than walk aimlessly through the empty halls. Looking up at the sky, I found the familiar constellations hanging there, so close and so far away. Kieren and I had visited some of those stars on assignment, a concept that still caused chills. To be among the stars was something that I had always desired and one of the main reasons I’d become a Guardian.
I took a deep breath, dropping my gaze, the smell of rosemary heavy from the bushes that lined the walkway. I absently walked towards the training maze that took up a large section of the massive courtyard. The maze was rarely used officially now that there was an interior maze, but the Administrators still maintained it, and younger generations used it to get lost and to do their personal things outside of the attention of any of the more evolved. Usually, I found walking it soothing even if I did occasionally come up on a personal tryst. In the middle of the night though it was deserted. I took one of the entrances, wandering randomly, counting my footsteps as I focused on one foot and then another, paying attention to those steps and those steps alone. After taking several corners, I was lost, though I could see the Citadel walls rising in the gloom to the front and right of me. I continued to walk, trying to arrive at a solution for gaining entrance to the Archives but without thinking of the solution. It was a method Collectors used to focus without focusing, accessing information lost in the depths of the subconscious and thereby unable to directly access. Focusing without focusing allowed for a different kind of brain pattern, a different kind of access.
It worked some of the time, but as I tried to keep my attention on the steps and the steps alone, there was too much whirling about my brain. Rushiel. Disappearing Tirius. The suspension. Kieren off on an assignment without me. Being truly alone for the first time in six cycles.
Too much, circling and tumbling about.
I stopped at a fountain, the water no longer running so that the pool was stagnant and overrun with moss and plants. The entirety of it was overgrown and untended. There was movement in the water as I watched, maybe some kind of fish, or reptile. It reminded me of an assignment Kieren and I had before Rushiel, located on a planet that had the same neglected, overgrown appearance. The object had been a stone box, located somewhere within the ruins of an ancient civilization. The assignment was to enter the ruins, locate the box that was giving off a magnetic signature, and return it. No one had told us that the ruins stretched for miles and the signal was sporadic at best. We had spent days moving through those ruins trying to locate the box and trying not to get killed by the various ancient boobytraps that existed everywhere. On the third night in the ruins, we had huddled close in front of the fire that only somewhat penetrated the heavy dark. To keep our minds off the sounds behind and around us, Kieren had talked about a theory of data transfer.
Data transfer that included absorption.
I blinked, looking around. The memory was very clear, as if I still sat there with Kieren, body warm next to mine, voice quiet.
I pulled the file out of my pocket. It was so tiny. So delicate.
“In the body of the Archives,” I muttered, staring, knowing a lot could go wrong.
I put the file in my mouth, gathering saliva and swallowed it, sitting down with my back against the lip of the overgrown fountain. I had no idea what to expect, and a part of me expected nothing at all. It was foolish to think that I could absorb a data file, but then my interface activated, an exterior file requesting access. I had to take my interface out of sleep mode to access it, but I wanted to know what was on the file, my stomach clenching with excitement and nerves.
My interface woke, red letters informing me that the data was currently being downloaded. I expected loads of data, at least enough to tell me what was going on, maybe even a message from Tirius, or at least something letting me know how to start to make sense of the tangled web I’d found myself in, but no such luck
Most of the data was corrupt, an error message lighting up my interface.
Most of it except for a picture file of a very familiar cottage, the Travel location listed next to it.
“Of course,” I whispered, pushing myself up to my feet and putting my interface back to sleep. “Of course.” I stared into the distance, thinking it through. If I left, I would be in violation of an unsaid assumption that I was to stay in the Citadel until the investigation was complete. But it was an unsaid assumption. No one had forbidden Travel, not technically. Of course, I knew that it was highly unlikely that I would be able to access a node for Traveling. If I wasn’t allowed in the Archives, Traveling was most assuredly off-limits as well, but I now knew a work around. Perhaps Travel was not possible within the Citadel, except by using a node but Traveling outside of the Citadel appeared to be entirely doable.
I left the maze quickly, moving through the different directions expertly. There was no way that I could leave the Citadel by the usual exits, all exits being manned by Guardians that were probably told to watch out for me; but I knew a few places that were not guarded, and I made for one of those, specifically the one near the Masters’ temporary chambers. Seeing the tall windows that I now knew belong to Master Ral, I grinned, spikes of ironic pleasure lighting up my chest as I moved into the very darkest of shadows. I’d written a security paper about this very situation. The serendipity of things, I thought, as I found the corner between the straight wall of the Citadel Hall and the curve of Master Ral’s tower. There the stone jutted outwards, not quite smooth, and very much scalable, at least for a Guardian.
I moved up the wall steady and precise, fingers and toes finding the smallest of purchases. It was the second time I’d scaled the wall and as such, not nearly as nerve-wracking as the first time. The key was to keep my movement slow. Up, pause, look around, and up again. In this way, I gained the roof in a matter of moments, pulling myself up and over the threshold with a last push of arm strength. Secure on the sloped roof, I lay on my back, staring at the sky that had just started to lighten in the west.
I needed to move even as I continued to catch my breath. Allowing myself another few moments, I watched the lighter sky take hold until paranoia propelled me back into action. Calmer, I rolled over, crawling on my belly up the slant of the roof, over the peak and down the other side. This was the tricky part as the descent to the ground was significant, with no ability to climb down. But I had resources, including my staff that I extracted from the small of my back and extended. I pulled my tunic over my head, the cooler air causing goosebumps, and attached either end of the tunic to either end of the staff, securing it tightly with rope that I uncoiled from the end of one of my knives. Putting the knife back in the holster at my calf, I surveyed my contraption. Guardian clothing was multifaceted. It had to be because of the situations we sometimes found ourselves, which often included a severe lack of resources. Kieren and I had used this trick several cycles back, though we had used the Guardian uniforms. Theoretically, the outfit I now wore was supposed to be of the same caliber. I was depending on it, glancing over the edge at the ground I could just barely see in the growing light.
“Now or never,” I muttered out loud to the air, taking hold of the staff with both hands. I made my way back towards the peak, staying low in a crouch. I scanned the area for anyone watching but there was no telling really, not from where I kneeled. “All or nothing,” I said, as if Kieren was next to me and then took off, the slope causing me to gain speed immediately, nearly tumbling me. I kept my feet, jumping up and out into the air at the last moment, constructed hand glider above my head.
It worked. Sort of. The ground came up considerably faster than I would have liked, but I adjusted, keeping my feet tucked and landing into a roll, the damp spring earth softening the blow. I still laid there dazed for a moment after the landing, but morning was growing with the light, decreasing the amount of time I had of not being noticed. I was about as far away from the Citadel walls as I had been when Tirius had Traveled with me, so I stayed where I was, holding tight to my staff, closing my eyes and creating a space for Travel even as I initiated my interface. My thoughts were sticky, the process feeling as if I moved through something, but I was able to grasp the energy as I identified my place of origin, and then the place of arrival.
Originally published 2020, copywrite 2020