I suppose this all started with paper. Real paper. I could not recall the last time I had seen a fresh batch of it. That close to the core, one rarely found supplies of this sort; they were hard to come by even for researchers like me. 'Only the bare necessities for those sworn to protect.' How many times had I had those words thrown in my face? Still, someone must have seen my request. How else had this package of crisp, white paper been delivered? The first thing I did was pull a piece free, hold it close to my nose, and inhale slowly. If I closed my eyes, the faint odor made me believe I was pressing my face close to a real tree standing before me, a soft breeze shifting my long hair around as it moved past. Well, I pictured what I thought was a tree. It was a pleasant dream.
A cough interrupted my wandering thoughts. I quickly lowered the paper and opened my eyes, brushing a strand of my hair from my face. There in the doorway stood a figure I'd never seen before. He was at least a full head taller than me, clothed in long, flowing silver robes. A hood covered his head and a cowl most of his face; a slit cut across it revealed dark skin and black eyes, which were locked on me. My heart accelerated slightly, and a tingly feeling ran up my side to my chest. He hesitated in the doorway, hands clasped behind him. I tossed the paper behind me and bowed my head as my cheeks warmed, not wishing to stare at the strange figure waiting before me.
"May I enter?" he asked, his voice deep and rough.
I looked up and nodded. He stepped forward to the table that dominated the room's center, the door sliding shut behind him.
"Feel free to stare," he muttered, eyes roaming around the space. "I find it helps you lot get past the startled stage sooner."
As his black eyes darted around, I felt self-conscious about the clutter. My eyes followed his around my messy office, taking in random articles of clothing, a hairbrush, and a tin of moisturizer, and I wished I'd taken a few moments earlier in the day to tidy up a bit.
"Your robes are...interesting," I said, words racing out of my mouth. I closed my eyes tight and took a few deep breaths.
"And a perpetual curiosity to you core lovers," the man said, moving to stand by the table holding the paper. "Quite a prize, here."
I must have looked confused, for the man arched an eyebrow and nodded at the table. When I looked around, all I saw was the paper.
"This?" I asked. "Yes, it is. I have no idea where it came from, either."
"Such a lovely day," the man said, moving past the table to stand near the room's lone window. "Join me? Seems a lot less windy than usual for this time of day, don't you think?"
I didn't move. I had no idea who he was. My first thought was to move toward the door, not the window.
"Don't you agree, Logwyn?" he asked, nodding toward the window. "About the wind? Seems very calm for this late in the day. The night-shield will be up in a few chrons."
I turned my gaze to the window, puzzled as to why he would want to discuss the weather with me. In the distance, I spied another shell, too small to support a population, orbiting the core just below ours. Aware of the man standing next to me and his question, I searched for some kind of response. I settled on a nod and started to reply, then stopped. He'd called me by name.
"Truth be told," he said, looking around toward the door and dropping his voice to a low murmur, "I'm not here to talk about the weather. I'm here to discuss that prize you just received."
I moved back toward the desk that stood along one side of the room, my eyes narrowing.
"I'll gather you're getting suspicious right about now," he said, his voice still low. "Good. Don't lose that. You're going to need it."
"How do you know my name?" I asked.
He smiled. "If there's one thing you can count on everywhere, it's the bureaucratic urge to account for everything." He glanced around the room, taking in the table, my desk, and the wardrobe along the far wall. "Especially who works in what office."
"You looked me up?"
"I needed to find you and, frankly, you're the only woman with that name in the index."
"Why?" I moved around the table.
He nodded at the door. "Go ahead. The door's not locked."
I paused. "Who are you?"
"I'm a friend of someone important." He looked back out the window. "Someone important to you."
I pointed at his garments. "Those are not from our shell."
"Nor mine, I'm afraid," he said, shrugging. "However, it's an effective disguise on most shells I visit."
"How? You stand out. That can't be what someone wearing a disguise wants."
He chuckled. "Down here, I'll grant you that much." He looked up at the ceiling for a moment. "Up there, on other shells, you'll find these cloaks carry a lot of power and weight." He held up a hand. "Not that I'm here to flaunt that power. I just didn't have time to change before I came."
"Why are you here?" I asked, looking back at the paper.
"Right, let's get to the point." He stepped away from the window and picked up a single sheet of paper from the table. "As I said, quite the prize. Getting this here was no small feat, I can tell you."
I looked back and forth between the paper and the stranger. "Pardon me," I said, holding his gaze, "but isn't this a violation of the import codes?"
The man leaned close, his dark eyes turning to look at me as he waved me closer. "It can't be a violation if it wasn't imported."
I opened and closed my mouth several times, trying to fathom how else the paper might have come. Nothing got to this shell except from the matter reforger or by import. Both of those required months of waiting to get anything beyond the necessities.
"An impressive bit of work, this is. I can't recall ever seeing a single sheet in existence, and here she's made an entire stack of it."
My eyes widened. "Someone made this?" I whispered, pointing at the sheet the man held. "Who?"
He continued speaking, either not having heard or ignoring my question. "The first is the most complex, as you know. I'm sure if I tried it would take me twenty-four chrons just to make the first sheet." He grinned at me. "I'll wager she did it in twelve."
I stared, my mouth hanging open slightly. Twelve chrons? At that point, I would have needed roughly thirty chrons to duplicate one sheet from the completed pattern, and whoever had done this had made one from scratch in half a day.
"Who?" I asked again.
"You can't figure that one out?"
I shook my head. "I can't think of anyone powerful enough to-" I stopped, my eyebrows shooting up. "The Queen?"
He arched an eyebrow. "The light dawns."
I looked at the paper. "We hardly ever see her anymore. Why would she make something like this?"
"She made it for me," he whispered.
That made me pause. I had only ever seen the Queen once in my lifetime, cycles in the past, the day I'd failed my test. It wasn't a happy memory for me. As it was the only time I'd ever seen her in person, I'd hardly forgotten it.
"You know her?"
He nodded slowly. "For a very long time." He stopped speaking, his eyes locked on the piece of paper in his hand.
"Did she make all of these?" I asked, finger running down the stack of paper.
The stranger chuckled. "No, once she had the original, duplicating is permitted with a matter forge, I'm sure." He shook his head and waved the piece of paper at me. "Still, I didn't come here to brag about the Queen's abilities," he said, placing the sheet back on the table. "I have a task for you." He frowned, looking back out the window. "Not an easy one, either."
The stranger stood silent for a moment, his eyes glazed over. He shook his head and refocused on me, reaching into his robes.
"You know what this is, correct?"
He held out an object. I took it and discovered it was an envelope, made from paper and sealed with what looked like a hard, red substance.
"Inside you'll find instructions." He nodded at the envelope. "I thought it best to avoid using certain devices. What's in it is of a delicate nature."
I turned it over in my hand and found my name written across it.
"You know how to write, correct?"
I looked down at the paper. "On this?" I asked. The man nodded, moving toward the doorway. "Yes, but I won't have anything to write with much longer. I'm on my last pencil and it will take me-" I glanced down at the paper, shaking my head at the Queen's feat. "It will take me much longer to make more. Pencils aren't high on the forge priority list."
The man smiled, held out a small, cylindrical case, and set it on the table between us. He nodded for me to take it.
"I think you'll find this more to your liking."
Inside the case lay a finger-length, cylindrical device made from solid metal. One tip ended in a point, the other rounded smooth. I held it up and shifted it to rest on my fingers like a pencil.
"Correct, it's a writing device. It doesn't have a name yet, but I'm told it's a never-ending pencil, for lack of something better," he said, pointing at the package that once held the paper. "Try it out. It will write on any surface."
I drew a Scripting symbol on the packaging, careful to leave the powerful construct incomplete so as not to cause some freak accident. The script looked wet at first but was dry when I brushed a finger across it. I tried it on the smooth, metal table and found the same result.
"Will that do?"
I nodded. "Do I want to know how long it took her to create this stylus?"
"She didn't make that one, but I'll tell who did now that you've named it," he said, stepping closer to the table and lowering his voice. "I took it from someone who I am quite certain will be up in arms about it, especially if he hears you've given it a name." He burst out with a hearty laugh, the first emotion I'd seen from the man, and stood up. "Now, here is where I leave you, but I must give you one word of warning. For this project, I'm sorry to say, you can't use the computers, not for any part."
I looked up from admiring the stylus to stare at the stranger.
"I can't use the computers?" I asked, looking behind the man.
Had we been in most any other room, a large, silvery display panel would have met my eyes, but not in this one. It was part of the reason I had chosen this space to work: to get away from the machines. To hide from the nagging feeling someone or something was staring at me from behind the panel.
"No, I'm afraid not." He nodded at me. "Any questions?"
"You haven't told me what it is you want me to do."
He pointed at the envelope. "Everything I can tell you is in there. Anything else?"
I looked up at him. "You never told me how you knew to look me up."
He took in a deep breath and let it out. "Some questions have to wait for their answers."
The stranger turned to leave, but I called out to him. "What's your name?"
He didn't answer. He walked out, the door sliding shut behind him. I turned the envelope over in my hand and stared at the red substance pressed to the side. I ran a finger over it. Whatever the red stuff was, it had solidified and turned smooth. A single image lay compressed into the center: an O. A memory tickled on the edge of my consciousness then flitted away. Shrugging, I used my fingernail to separate the substance from the envelope, freeing the flap. I pulled a piece of paper out and began to read:
Logwyn, your queen needs your help. She is about to send for you to request that you complete a task for her. When she does, you must tell her one thing when she asks if you will complete the task for her. Tell her you know her secret. The secret no one else knows. She will challenge you. When she does, show her and only her the item I left on your table.
I stopped reading and looked around. There sat a metallic box the same color as the table. A single sheet of paper lay across it, blocking the box from my sight. The paper the stranger had held. I looked back down at the letter.
Show no one else what lies inside this box, not even yourself. Keep it secret from everyone save for the Queen. Only reveal you have it at your direst need.
P.S. Do not trust any computer terminal you happen upon.
I set the note aside and moved to stand over the box. It measured just longer than my arm from elbow to fingertip and a bit wider than my wrist. How I'd missed him placing it I still don't know. A small magnetic clasp held it closed on one side. I moved to open the box, pausing to glance at the note. He said to show her what lay within. What could it be? My finger toyed with the clasp as I pondered what might lie inside.
A moment later a messenger appeared, delivering a summons to see the Queen. He found me standing over the still-closed box. After he left, I eyed the summons and the note, my hand still resting on the metallic box. What did the strange man want? What did the Queen want? And why all this secrecy? I needed more information, and only one source lay open to me. Before I'd finished thinking the thought through, I found myself walking out the door, paper, stylus, and a still-closed box all tucked away safely in a travel sack.
Finding the Queen is easier said than done most days. Being the oldest and sole eternal of our bunch, the load she bears has always been massive. When not required for disputes and various royal duties, she spends most of her time in seclusion deep in our shell's cavernous belly. Once down there, we would not see her for days, sometimes dozens of them. High ones would venture below to meet with her on occasion and bring her words of wisdom to guide our race. It had been that way for as long as I'd been alive and, from what the history we kept showed, for much longer than that. Since her coronation millennia ago, the Queen had been a recluse, speaking only when necessary, avoiding the details of our world while guiding us from the background. Many had questioned this method of governance over the centuries. Some had tried ousting her. We don't talk about those days anymore.
Needless to say, as a scribe given the chance to speak to her, I was overwhelmed with excitement. Soon, I would stand with history, our history, and I didn't even know why yet. The thought of being in the room with the Queen should have had me preoccupied with silly things like whether my hair was suitably combed out or my robes of fine enough quality to be in her presence. Instead, I could think of nothing more than the conversation I'd just had. That and the metallic box resting in my sack. When I found myself standing at the entrance to the cavernous tunnel leading to her domain below, I was distracted enough to not move. The guards didn't seem inclined to fly down from their posts along the walls. They just stared at me with their yellow eyes, their long, sinuous necks turning and twisting as they watched for anyone attempting to disturb the Queen's reverie.
No, I wasn't stuck for fear of them. Or fear of going down into the gaping maw that reminded me of a black hole sucking in all the light. Really, I couldn't say what had me afraid, but I was. So, I stood there, clutching my travel sack in one hand, glancing up at the guards. They weren't nearly as majestic as the Queen, yet still intimidating. I remember entertaining thoughts of being a dragon when I was younger. In my mind, I held an imposing form as a dragon. That dream had been denied me long ago on the only day I'd met the Queen and, to be honest, I didn't care that much. However, that thinking was frowned upon in our society. So, whenever I was out in public, I maintained the proper reverences for those blessed with that form. It made me long for my room. So many people and their “put upon” airs. Regardless, in most of the dwelling areas inside the shell, I rarely saw those blessed with the transformation. Preferred form or no, the inhabited parts of our shell were as priceless as they were Ancient. We couldn't have dragons destroying the few remaining Ancient structures we possessed.
A cold breeze whipped past me, sending chills down my spine and making me quiver, bringing me back to the issue at hand. I looked up to find the guards watching me. A bemused expression twisted their hideous faces into an even worse state.
"Is the Queen below?" I called up.
The guard on the left nodded, his head dipping up and down. "And she's expecting you, scribe. So get to it else we'll have to take you down ourselves."
I sniffed at his suggestion and shook my head. "No, thank you. I'll walk on my own."
Both guards barked out laughing, small puffs of flame slipping out as they did.
"Are you daft, scribe?" the guard who had spoken before asked. "You've been around your computers too much."
The guard on the right took to the air and glided down to land beside me. "No one walks into the Queen's domain," he whispered, sidling close enough for me to feel his body heat through my cloak. "Not out of respect or anything like that, mind you."
The other guard landed to my left and moved in as close as the other. "No, you have to fly, scribe. There's no other way in." He nodded toward the black tunnel reaching toward us, reminding me of an image I saw of an extinct creature called a snake lunging to swallow a meal. "Just beyond the edge of the light, see? The floors all drop off."
"It's a giant cavern, in there," the guard to my right continued. "And to meet the Queen, you have to find her."
"You have two choices, scribe," the other guard said. "You ride the platform, blind, or we fly you down." He leaned close to me and a sulfuric odor wafted past me as he spoke. "Also blind."
"I'll take the platform, thank you," I whispered, grasping my travel pack and shifting past them.
I jumped as the two of them burst into laughter and took to the air, returning to their perch. They muttered back and forth about scribes and what sounded like a few colorful phrases directed at people like me. I felt my skin flush warm, despite the cold wind shifting around me. The light behind me illuminated just enough of the tunnel for me to see the end of ground and the metallic platform that awaited me. Beyond, the air was blacker than I'd imagined, causing me to pause and stare for a moment into the heart of our floating shell. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes to center myself, and climbed on. The device rose, wavered a bit, and then dove down into the black maw, taking me with it into complete darkness.