I floated through the dark space, my ears tuned to my surroundings. The guards proved correct on two counts: it was indeed a giant cavern, and pitch black to boot. The trip did not take as long as I thought it might. As the platform descended, the thought did occur to worry if the platform would fly out the bottom of the shell. No light came into view, so I assumed the cavern’s floor remained sealed. I began to wonder, nonetheless, if the bottom would ever come when the platform's movement began to change. It altered its descent, shifting to slow and come to a soft landing in the silent blackness. The echoes of my touching down shifted through the open space all around. In the distance, I imagined I could sense the cavern walls. Still no Queen.
I looked around me, listening in every direction. How different this place must seem to those blessed with the form. It probably wouldn't have helped. If she was there, the Queen was motionless, appearing as rock or wall.
"My Queen?" I called into the silence. "My Queen, you sent for me?" No answer. "My Queen, it is Logwyn. You sent for me. I've come per your request."
Something shifted behind me. A voice tickled past me from the other direction.
"It's a tricky thing, Logwyn, trying to sense someone who doesn't want to be found."
That voice had come from two directions. Trying to decide which direction to respond to, I settled on the middle.
"My Queen, my apologies for disturbing your quiet and intruding into your domain," I began.
The Queen silenced me. "I called you here for one reason, dear scribe," she said, her voice coming from two new directions this time. "This place is one of the few that is both isolated from people and the network alike. I think you, in particular, will appreciate the uniqueness of that."
My instinct was to nod, despite the dark room.
"Apologies if the guards bothered you," she continued. "They do their job well, but sometimes they like to toy with those who come to visit."
I shifted the pack in my hand, holding it tightly and feeling the weight of the metallic box. "They let me pass."
"That is a polite way of avoiding my implied question." I opened my mouth to apologize, but the Queen chuckled, cutting me off. "Don't worry, Logwyn, they won't be chastised. Much."
I shifted in the dark, my fingers picking at the edges of my travel pack.
"Your mind is preoccupied, Logwyn," she stated, her voice shifting directions to come from just ahead and behind me. "Speak."
"Freely?" I asked, pausing for her acquiescence.
"Here, in this place, nothing less is expected from our citizens."
"You mean your people," I corrected her.
"Never mistake my title for my ownership," she hissed. "I didn't want that title, but you people refused to leave me be."
I ducked my head down low, my hands gripping the travel sack. "My apologies, my Queen. I didn't mean to offend."
A heavy silence fell in the room, pushing down on me. A soft sigh flowed past from above and below.
"You didn't offend me, dear Logwyn," the Queen whispered. "Nor has anyone of this age."
"The Ancients who crowned you, then?"
Something moved in the darkness, and my mind imagined the Queen nodding. "That stupid council," she said, her voice tight. "Had they only listened to me."
I held my breath, grasping at any knowledge of the Ancient era to understand what she might mean.
"That is for another day, Logwyn," the Queen finally said. "I promise you answers to all your questions. Soon."
I raised my head up, looking into the darkness above me. "My questions?"
Warmth moved near my torso, and I imagined the giant form of the Queen shifting past me. "As a scribe, you must have them. Your mind seeks that which it doesn't have, which makes you perfect for the task at hand."
"The reason for my summons?" I asked, hugging the sack close, the words of the stranger's note at the forefront of my mind.
The Queen chuckled, the sound echoing all around. "Yes, my summons. First, tell me of your project."
"My project? You mean the compilation? You know of that?"
"Keeping tabs on people who ask as many questions as you do is of interest to me, Logwyn," the Queen answered. "Especially when they make as much use of the network as you have." The Queen paused and I heard something that sounded like a claw clicking on the cavern floor. "A point that is odd enough considering your feelings toward the machines."
My mind tried to find some response, but failed. The Queen rescued me.
"Cat got your tongue?" she asked, her voice coming from ahead and behind me.
"I'm just stunned you would take the time to notice me. Or my project."
The Queen made a clicking sound into the darkness. "Little else pleases me these days, Logwyn. Keeping tabs on worthy projects put forth by our people is one of them. It just so happens the skills you've employed in completing your project are needed by me."
I contemplated her words. "You want me to interview someone?"
"See? Intelligent to boot," the Queen said, chuckling, the sound echoing across the dark room. "Considering your project, it is not that much of a stretch."
"Your Highness, I struggle to see what you would need me to compile. I've spent my time researching mostly mundane people."
"No one is mundane, Logwyn. No one."
I bowed my head. "Forgive me, my Queen. It's just that, in comparison to one such as you, the people I've interviewed or researched are relatively mundane."
"To me, especially, no one is mundane," the Queen whispered, and the warmth of her presence drew near.
"My apologies, again. I didn't mean to offend."
The Queen remained silent for a moment.
Finally, she said, "You didn't offend me, dear Logwyn. It is just tiresome when our kind believes we are better than the rest of the world or sells ourselves short to the point we paralyze our society when action is needed."
Her words confused me, so staying quiet seemed the best action. After a moment, she continued.
"Logwyn, I need you to find something for me. Something vital. Something that may be the answer to much that is going wrong in our world."
The metallic box in my sack felt very heavy all of a sudden. I clutched the pack close and waited for her to continue.
"Our people rely so much on the network. The computer is so powerful." The Queen sniffed into the darkness. "But something is wrong with it. Something I can't quite figure out, despite my very lengthy efforts."
"It seems to be functioning as it always has."
The Queen sniffed again. "When you've been around it as long as I have, you notice things others don't. No, something is wrong with it. Something you can appreciate."
The warmth of her presence flooded over me as she lowered her giant, invisible form. I knew from previous sightings the Queen's dragon form stood as the largest ever recorded, even in the Ancient world. That body drew close, not touching but pushing down nevertheless, weighing heavily on me. Her next words came as a whisper in both of my ears.
"Information is missing from the network," she whispered.
"But that's impossible," I blurted out. "The computer has all of the known knowledge ever to exist."
"And much more, trust me," the Queen went on. "But some of it is missing. It appears to be random, but it is not. I've tried to find a pattern to it, but it is changing. Like someone or something is altering the data, shifting it around to keep it hidden."
"Who would have that kind of access?" I asked, my mind reeling from the implications. "The network is built on the most powerful quantum system ever devised, powered by the endless energy supplied by the singularity core of our world. And that computer was locked away in a secret place known only to..." I paused, looking around the room. "To you. As the Queen."
"Exactly. So, if I say something is wrong with it, trust me."
I bowed my head. "Forgive my rambling."
"Don't apologize for your curiosity and instinct. I have my theories as to how it is happening, but I need an outside perspective. Your instincts may be the key to solving what is wrong with the network." The Queen's warmth increased and the sound of her long, lithe form twisting around me in the darkness filled my ears. My body twitched despite my best efforts at not reacting. "Solving that is of the utmost importance. Many lives depend on it, and not just here on our shell."
"It's affecting other shells?" I asked.
The Queen murmured, "Indeed. And it's been getting worse for several cycles now."
"Why wait until now to do this?"
The Queen chuckled. "You assume I've been doing nothing?"
I shook my head, grinding my teeth together. "Apologies, that's not what I meant."
"Trust me, Logwyn, much has been sacrificed in trying to fix this problem. Much."
Silence fell, and my mind wandered back to the box in my sack. The stranger had been very specific. The Queen needed to ask me to complete the task for her. I held my tongue even as my hand gripped the sack a bit tighter.
"For what you are about to do, you cannot trust the network. Swear to me from this point forward everything you hear and learn will remain free from that cursed machine."
"How can I help you find a problem in the network if I'm not allowed to use it?"
"The answers you seek won't be found within the network," she answered.
A frown twisted my face at those words, but I had no time to respond.
"Swear to me," she said again, her voice more insistent. "It is paramount if we are to go on for you to make this promise."
"So I have a choice?"
Sweat rolled down my back and an itch began to build in several crevices of my body.
The queen hissed in my ear. "Of course, you have a choice. We all do."
The box seemed heavier to me at that moment. The stranger's words echoed in my head.
"Will you complete this task for me? Your agreement is paramount before we can proceed."
I took a deep breath. "My Queen, forgive me, but someone required me to say these words." My heart pounded in my chest. "I know your secret."
The silence that fell seemed heavier than the box in my bag. Her warmth began to wane like fire shifting from a strong wind.
"What are you talking about?" she whispered.
"I know your secret." The note hadn't said anything more to say.
"I have many secrets," she said. "When you have lived this long, they gather around like grandchildren." She barked once in laughter. “Not that I have any of those.”
A different tack seemed in order. "Not just any secret. The secret. Your most important one."
That attempt seemed to hit closer to the mark, as she didn't respond. Her next words ended that hope.
"Nothing I hold that dear is a secret."
Mindful of the stranger's warning, I made my choice.
"There is something you must see," I whispered, reaching into my sack to pull out the box.
The Queen did not answer as I set the sack down and held the box out before me.
"What is this?" she asked. "A trick?"
"I hope not," I whispered to myself, flipping the latch and lifting the lid.
Even though the room was dark, I had no doubt she could see. The hiss followed by the withdrawal of her warmth confirmed that suspicion.
"Who gave you this?" she whispered, her voice tremulous.
"I don't know. He never gave me his name."
"Do you know what it is you hold?" I shook my head. "He made you promise not to look?"
"No, he left it in my care secretly and instructed me in a note not to look."
The silence that followed stretched on forever. My arms began to tremble at holding the box out.
"And you didn't look. So trustworthy." The warmth began to return. "You may put that away. Did he instruct you to keep it secret?"
I nodded, lowering my arms and flipping the lid closed. "I was only to show it to you." To this day the reason I kept the rest of his warning to myself has eluded me. "And only after you asked me to complete your task for you."
"Did he give you anything else?" she asked.
"A package full of paper."
A soft chuckle rolled past. "That devilish Nomad."
"Do you know him, my Queen?" I asked.
"Indeed. You may trust him. With your life."
"My Queen, please forgive my boldness."
The Queen shifted around me. "Do not apologize for such things. You simply followed the words of someone who at this moment is wiser than both of us. Blindly maybe, but you still took the wiser course."
Taking a gamble, I asked, "Might you tell me what it is in this box?"
"No," she said, her voice firm. "For now, it is best that no one, not even you, knows you have it. Not yet." The clicking noise touched my ears. "It is not safe yet."
Another silence fell. The warmth of the Queen's form shifted.
"So, you never answered my question regarding the task."
I held my tongue for a moment before nodding. "Agreed."
Her warmth left as she moved away. Something clattered to the ground before me and began to glow. It was a small padd.
"This is the only device you may use," the queen said, her voice echoing down from a single point above me. "It will record the words you hear and allow you to transcribe them to the paper our friend gave you." She laughed slightly. "Do you have something to write with?"
"Yes, a stylus."
"I don't recognize that word. Where did that name come from?"
I shrugged. "A word from our distant past. It came to mind when it was given to me."
"Did we once use them?" she asked.
"Yes, my Queen," I replied, reaching to pick up the padd. "Back before the Ancients and their technology took over the world, what they called styluses were in common use with the technology of that age."
The Queen chuckled, a warm sound that radiated past me. "You are perfect for this task."
"You haven't told me what that task is."
"Considering what you just showed me, that task has changed. Slightly. Your help is needed but, for you to fully understand, you're going to have to talk to someone else."
"In time, dear girl, in time," the Queen answered. "The device will record the words you hear, and you may use the stylus to transcribe them to paper later. The device is already on. It is recording everything we say." The Queen chuckled. "It wouldn't surprise me if our mutual friend carried it with him earlier. He did come to visit me twice today, and when he left with his paper he might have pilfered this from me."
"So, you need me to go talk to some people?" I asked, waving the glowing padd around.
"Your task is a bit more complicated than simple interviews," the Queen said, her tone flat. "It was my hope to keep this much simpler for you. But our mutual friend is correct in what he's not saying outright. To help me with the larger problem, you need to start much earlier."
Her words confused me further. I said as much to the Queen.
"You'll remain so for quite some time, most likely," she stated. "But it is necessary. The benefit of outside eyes is paramount. My proximity to the problem is a hindrance."
"I'll help in any way possible."
The Queen chuckled. "Remember those words when you're talking to some of the people you will inevitably have to interview. Particularly a certain annoying old man."
"Do you have names for me to start with? Typically, I at least start with that much."
"You may have four names, actually. In no particular order. Micaela, Quentin, Suyef, and Nidfar." The Queen paused after that last name. "Although that last one might be a lost cause at this point. To be honest, the only one on this list I can say for sure you might find is the first one."
"Because she's here."
I looked around. "In this room?"
The Queen chuckled slightly. "No, in my retreat nearby. But she doesn't know why she's here. She believes it is a simple occasion, a friendly chat with an old friend."
"She's your friend?"
"A greater friend than you could possibly imagine," the Queen replied. "All in good time, you'll understand."
"So convince her to talk to me and record her words to paper? All while trying to find the answer to why the network isn't working properly?"
A sound like the Queen landing nearby greeted my ears, a soft thud for such a giant creature. "Somewhere in her words is the clue I'm looking for. She may not have all the answers. Trust your instincts. Find the others if you can, and, when you do, convince them to talk to you," she said, her voice just a hair above a whisper. "I'm afraid that's all I can tell you for now."
"You haven't told me much."
She didn't answer.