The Book of Sky and Stars

by Quinn D.K.

Chapter 2: Begin Again

The day that I found the book began routinely, not peculiar in any way. Not if you count my near-death experience.

But I'm getting ahead of myself again, aren't I?

I had spent the whole morning shelving books for my job at the History Archives. It's one of a few libraries within the United Galactic Worlds headquarters in Vancouver. The campus is mammoth and my library is too, a four level labyrinth of pre-war information. I never saw much in the way of patrons. Post-war literature and media is downloaded to an individual's vidscreen at home, while the pre-war archival material I oversee is physical and has next to no use for the average citizen. Save for the occasional researcher or student, I often went days without seeing or talking to anyone.

I loved it.

After loading the bookcart with that morning's last batch of donated materials I began at the aisle of 620s, which held our Engineering collection. It makes me smile to think how far technology and science have advanced and yet we still use the Dewey Decimal System to organize books. I crept up the rungs of my footladder to examine the spine labels on the top shelf. They were all in order except for one - a 194. In an aisle of 620s? Unthinkable! Believe it or not, this was the most excitement I'd experienced in a while. It was like finding someone else's baby in your crib.

I tilted my head to read the title from the spine. "French Philosophy in the Nineteenth Century." A grin tugged the corner of my mouth. "What are you doing all the way over here?" I climbed another ladder rung, the highest one, and it groaned beneath my weight. That should have been red flag number one. The book on French philosophy was tantalizingly just out of my reach and I had to perch myself on my toes to grab it. That should have been red flag number two. Number three (you know what they say about hindsight) was the fact that my back faced the second floor railing, and below that was a steep, twenty foot drop onto the linoleum floor of the library's reception area. And then there was me. Me, yes, I am the young man handling the duties of a large library all by myself, oblivious to everything around me except the task at hand, hopelessly unaware of the spaces just beyond my sight. Me, who extended myself an inch too far to reach a damn book on French Philosophy and threw my weight completely off balance, launching the ladder off the shelf like a slingshot. I toppled backwards and flew over the railing. I remember reaching for it, my two skinny arms fumbling for purchase, feeling the sudden rush of air hit my back through the cotton material of my cardigan. This is how I die, I thought. A cracked skull or twisted neck beside the circulation desk. It seemed such a perfect ending for me that I almost started to laugh. 

I screwed my eyes shut and braced for impact. It never came. The momentum of my fall cut short a moment before I expected it to. Somehow I was not sprawled across the floor as a broken corpse. Rather, I had been caught in someone's arms. I allowed myself a second to catch my breath before I saw the face of my savior. A man.

"You fell," he said, not with relief but gruff annoyance. The kind of annoyance that clearly spelled out the part of the sentence he didn't say. You fell, you clumsy shit. One arm supported my head and the other propped up my legs, as if I were his newly acquired bride. The silence between us passed one, two, three moments longer than necessary. As he narrowed his dark eyes, I realized he'd been expecting me to release myself from our tableau.

My feet found the floor. As I started getting my bearings I realized this man was much taller than I was. His shoulders were broad and he seemed not just fit but strong, capable of actual damage. There are some men you can tell by virtue of looking at them that they've won every single fight they've been in. He stepped into the light and I then understood another concrete fact about him. This man was a knight.

"The hell are you doing jumping around like that? You can get your goddamn neck broken that way." A frown creased his unshaven face, his stubble a dark brown that hugged the sharp lines of his jaw. It suited his features, which were masculine and hard.

"I... I wasn't jumping around," I stammered. That I needed to defend myself had thrown me a little. "I fell. It was an accident."

The knight's eyebrows, as thick and dark as his beard, pressed together in annoyance. I wondered what I looked like to him, how inconsequential and small I must have seemed. Knights were noble, yes, but they had more important things to do than catch falling librarians. Which naturally led me to my next question.

"Why are you in my library?"

His frown deepened. "You're welcome."

"I didn't mean- I just didn't kn- I'm-" The words sprayed out like garbled static. The knight held a palm out as a signal for me to stop. The gesture was merciful, not rude. Please stop embarrassing yourself, it said. My mouth shut and waited for my brain to catch up. I noticed the UGW Military insignia engraved on his chestplate. I'd seen the symbol before, of course - a giant roaring lion circling the Earth. Nonsense rah-rah exceptionalism if you ask me, but it gave me a topic to focus on.

"I take it you work for my father? Commander Admon Cansu?"

The knight nodded. "Sir Ellis Pyre. Vanguard class." He pointed a thumb behind him. Two other knights stood at the library entrance, solemn and unmoving. Had they been there the entire time? A mammoth crate on a wheeled platform sat between them.

"We're here to deliver this wooden beast. Came in the moment you started your flying lesson."

I sent a weary smile in his direction. "Good timing, Sir Ellis, but I wasn't expecting a delivery. Not from three Vanguard knights, anyway."

Ellis tapped the vidscreen on his gauntlet and waited for the display to load. "Says it comes from a Lunella Zheng."

My pulse quickened. That name! I hadn't heard it since completing my master's degree.  I touched the crate's rough wooden surface. Her care packages have never come larger than a shoebox. Mrs. Zheng. What in the world are you up to?

"I thought protected citizens were forbidden from contacting the cities now that the Plague Act has passed?"

"She went through your old man," Ellis said. His eyes looked to the shelves of books that stretched behind me. "She requested your father's finest knights escort this to you, personally." He shrugged his massive shoulders as his attention came back to the crate. "Whatever the hell this is."

"Lunella Zheng is a respected bookseller and this is a library. I don't think the contents of this crate are much of a mystery."

He grunted. "I was joking."

My mouth became a hard line. "I didn't realize knights were such crack-ups."

Ellis turned to me with a look that said, Huh. Smartass. I noticed his hair was longer than the usual knight's, dark, wavy and tucked behind his ears on both sides. It gave him a rogueish quality - as if he were a scruffy pirate disguised in a more noble uniform.

He glanced at his vidscreen again. "Chase Cansu, level three public service employee? Sign please."

I scribbled my signature on his display. Ellis considered the bookshelves again.

"You work here?"

I nodded.

"What, all by yourself?"

"Well..." I started. Earth's United Galactic Worlds affiliate was less moneyed than most of the off-world chapters, due mainly to their focus on restoring infrastructure after the war. It never seemed right to complain about. I had more than most. "Funding for public services is tight. I'm lucky this library is open at all."

"Doesn't get lonely?"

"I actually prefer it this way."

He absorbed this, haltingly, and then acknowledged the silent pair of knights with a tight nod. They nodded back and left the building. I expected Ellis to grunt out a goodbye and follow but instead he walked deeper into the library shelves. Each stride was long and he walked with a slow, stalking grace. Brow furrowed, I fell in step behind him.

"Can I, um, help you with something, Sir Ellis?"

He skimmed a finger across the dusty spines of a few textbooks. "You work with this every day? All these books?"

"Yes, Sir."

"How much have you read?"

"Oh, just about everything in the collection. I'm stalling a little at prescriptive linguistics. The subject matter is a little beyond me, I'm afraid..."

The knight's eyes widened slightly. They were a warm, chocolate brown. "Can't say I'm much of a reader."

"Most people aren't these days, Sir. "

He pulled one textbook at random. Abnormal Psychology, 16th Edition. He went quiet after that, lost in thought. He rubbed a gloved thumb across the worn surface, flipped it around, did the same to the back cover. Then he opened it to the title page verso, eyes dancing across the words.

Surely, he's seen a book before, I thought. He looked older than me, early 30s at most, so he couldn't have been as clueless with physical text as the children at the NuEdu centers. Then again, knights are trained right from adolescence and their education is done mostly through neuralnet.

A minute had passed and Ellis was still reading. I didn't want to interrupt him but I was growing uncomfortable, so I filled the silence the best way I knew how. "Erm, so, at UGW's History Archives, we house the largest collection of physical pre-war text and literature in the world." I stretched out my arms to illustrate the vast size then did a goofy little spin, as I did when I led the NuEdu children on tours. "Everything's been digitized and collected in the neuralnet, of course, but there's something to be said for the heft of a book in your hands."

At this point I would pluck a book from the shelf and offer it to a random student, whose mouth would form a comical capital 'O' as they struggled to keep the tome upright in their hands. The NuEdu kids aren't used to lifting anything heavier than a micro-vidscreen. Adorable or sad? I don't really know. Performing the same activity with Ellis would have been pointless, he could lift me above his head without so much as a snort of effort. "Do you have an Archive membership?" I offered. His silence continued to stretch. "They're free for all UGW employees, which includes all military personnel."

Ellis slid the psychology textbook back into place. He pierced me with a stare. Did I say something wrong? Had he read my thoughts somehow? No... his expression became gentle, his eyes simmered with curiosity. Had I ever inspired curiosity in a man before? I didn't move. A long, deep scar I hadn't noticed before ran down his forehead to his left eyebrow. What kind of monster had done this, I wondered. A wandering group of Proxies? They were awfully dangerous in numbers. Or maybe it was just a drunken fool at a bar trying to prove himself. My lungs shrunk against my beating heart. Why wasn't he speaking? Why couldn't I?

My eyes idled over his scar longer than was polite. I diverted them to my hands. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to stare."

He grunted, amused. "My face bothers you?"

"No, Sir." In truth I rather liked Ellis' face, not that a knight needed my validation. When I dared to look at him again I saw my reflection in the dark pools of his irises, my skin like milk. Although he seemed a hard man in every sense, there was something about his gaze that reassured and comforted me.

"You were being very quiet," I eventually said. "Which is appropriate considering where we stand, I suppose."

"You're a curious one, librarian."

My head tilted. "Am I?"

"Hard to believe you're only hearing this now."

"I don't encounter many knights in my line of work." I tried to shove away the warmness his gaze had stirred. The way he scanned the length of my nose and curve of my lips, then unconvincingly cleared his throat, made me suspect he was doing the same.

"Can't say I've crossed paths with a librarian before."

"Am I your first?"

He nodded. Yes, it made sense. The way he browsed the bookshelves with quiet awe gave him away. He'd never been in a library before. The realization softened me. "I hope I wasn't too disappointing?"

One of the knight's eyebrows raised skyward. "I don't know what you are."

I tried not to laugh. "Likewise, Sir Ellis."

"I've learned a long time ago not to ask another man if you've disappointed him. Which reminds me." He unceremoniously placed an envelope in my hand and walked back into the reception area.

"What's this?" I followed.

"From your father. An invitation to the annual UGW Military Ball. It's a fundraiser for-"

"I know what the Military Ball is," I stopped him. My palms started to sweat. "He sends me this invitation every year."

"You never go."

"How do you know that?"
"The knights and the valkyries attend the Ball every year. We're trained to scout a room. If you'd ever been to one? I'd remember your face."

Heat rose inside me. I tried to joke it away. "Do I appear that much of a troublemaker?"

"Doubt you've given anyone any trouble in your life, librarian. You really have no interest in going?"

"No, Sir."

"You may read books," Ellis shook his head, "But something tells me you don't read other men with as much interest."

"Men aren't as interesting as books, Sir."

He chuckled softly. "Consider this. In a room full of knights, a face without scars would be the center of attention."

The envelope crinkled slightly in my grip. "That's really the last place I'd like to be."

"Uh huh. Your father told me you'd refuse. He offers you incentive."

I frowned. I almost asked why it was so important I go to this damn thing, but the answer would be beyond a stranger like Ellis, and I knew the reason deep down. Commander Cansu would simply feel too queer asking to see me randomly - an event like the Military Ball was the formal pretense he needed. He never used a knight to convince me before. Was he getting so desperate? It's not like we've ever enjoyed each other's company.

"Incentive," I repeated.

Ellis tapped at his vidscreen. An audio recording played and I immediately recognized the gravelly, whiskey-hewed voice of my father.

"Chase. Your presence at this year's Military Ball is paramount this year. I'm sorry to do this, but the crate that Lunella Zheng sent you came with a letter." His voice took on a somewhat embarrassed tone. It was alien to me, hearing an apologetic version of him. "I know you love her letters, son. I'll give it to you if - and only if - you attend the Ball."

My eyes closed. You can't be serious.

The recording ended. I stared at the floor, dumbfounded. "He wants you to bring him back an answer, doesn't he."

"Commander Cansu insists I do."

I approached the crate and leaned my weight against it. Lunella Zheng hadn't always lived miles away on the safety of Quadra Island. She was once my professor and my harshest grader. As it happens in academia, she became my sounding board, an empathetic listener, and then the only person I ever called a friend. Since graduation her letters arrived infrequently but always cast a glow on my life. I savored each one as thoroughly as I could, desperate to stay warm in her insightful and biting words. It was cruel of my father to hold her from me. He knew there was nothing I looked forward to more.

And then there was the ghastliness of the Military Ball, essentially a mating ritual designed to bring the knights and the valkyries together. I had no interest in that. But perhaps... perhaps I could meet with my father, subject myself to his latest speech about why I'm wasting my life, receive my rightful letter and then dash out. I may be his son but I'm also an adult. He couldn't force me to stay through the entire damn thing.

"I'll do it," I said in a hard, wary voice. "Tell him I'll go."

"Very well."

The knight keyed something into his vidscreen. I noted two swords slung together at his waist, one a dull, dirty silver with a handle frayed from use, and a second, newer blade imprinted with hardlight technology. It shone a frosty blue against the darkness of his armor. Much like the man it was attached to, I couldn't help but find it interesting.

"Do you knights dress up for the occasion?"

"We do."

"That might be a sight worth seeing." I smiled shyly. "Must feel nice to slip into something other than chainmail and leather."

"What does a librarian wear on a night out?"

I thought about my answer for a moment. "Glasses."

Ellis guffawed, a deep and rough sound from the bottom of his throat. His swords shook from the vibration. When he finished, he motioned to the envelope in my hands. "The Ball is in a week or so, the details are on the invite. The Commander will want you to be on time."

"You'll be attending too, Sir Ellis?"

"I will."

A boldness inside me grew. "Will I have a chance to follow up with you on how curious you find me?"

"You might."

"If you're not too distracted by the valkyries, I mean."

"The valkyries do not distract me, librarian."

"Would I?"

"Huh. Remains to be seen."

A knowing look developed between us until I was the one who dared to break it, flushed and red. Ellis cleared his throat and patted Lunella's crate as he went for the exit. "Until next time, librarian."

"Until next time, knight."

He bowed his head goodbye, a surprisingly old-fashioned gesture, and as he left his eyes lingered over me one last time.


Lunella's crate was a wonderland of twenty-first century paperback novels. Pages were yellow and musty, covers spiderwebbed with bend marks. It seemed such a cruel irony to me, the way books from that century were so concerned with monsters and heroes and the unknowable. If only that era of writers and readers were aware of what lurked around the corner.

I cataloged each title and shelved every novel with care. I did this until the sun went down and my eyes blurred. I didn't regret the time it took; history is such a delicate thing. I considered it a privilege to hold it in my hands every day.

It neared 9 pm when I realized how late it was. Gathering my cardigan, scarf and coat, I began locking everything up when the circulation vidscreen at reception blinked to life. A new message in the inbox. That's queer, I thought. Who pings a library this late at night?

I swiped the screen to life and read from the display.


To the clumsy librarian whose ass I saved this morning --- Stay away from those second floor railings. There might be one at the Military Ball next week.

A noise escaped from me that I didn't recognize. A laugh or a sigh? Something in between? The playfulness of the message surprised me, Ellis seemed like such a stoic fellow. But there had been moments between his solemnity where I saw traces of a man, someone warm and at ease, who enjoyed my company as much as I enjoyed his. I bit back a smile and sent off a read receipt. Had I really just befriended a knight today, me of all people? A rabbit making small talk with a wolf would have been less strange.

As I closed the vidscreen a chatter of voices whispered into my ear. I spun, startled. It was so close I could feel breath on my neck. Had a patron snuck in while I was distracted with cataloging?

"Hello?" I called. "I'm closing now!"

I waited another moment and when no one answered, my neck pebbled with goosebumps. I swore someone had just spoken to me. Was that a shadow lingering beyond my sight as I heard the voices? I couldn't remember.

Something pulled me in the direction of Lunella's crate. I had emptied it out hours ago and wondered what to do with the huge thing. I couldn't move it on my own. Maybe, hopefully, Ellis was available for a return trip...

The whispers came back, fevered and unintelligible, and this time they weren't pressed against my ear. They were coming from inside the crate.

"Hello!" Nothing. My skin crawled. My feet rooted to the ground and I unleashed what Mrs. Zheng referred to as my 'bossy brat' voice. "I have a knight on call. He's heading here right now and if you don't leave you'll get the thrashing of your life. I mean it!"

The whispers dulled into silence again. I squinted. The light from the reception desk illuminated the cracks between the crate. It was empty, no outlines of a person or creature. I held my breath as I approached the crate and gingerly peeked inside.

Nothing. No one.

Except for a single book. I must have missed it my first time around. It was practically invisible in the shadowed corner of the wooden box. I bent down to get a closer look. The book was without a title or author, bound in battered leather the color of wine. Strange, it didn't look like a novel. I'd be less surprised to find it tucked next to a witch's cauldron. I picked up the thing to examine it further. The rough leather tingled beneath my fingers. I stroked it, turned it sideways, admired its age and texture. Had Lunella accidentally dropped in her diary? Or was this something far more obscure?

If only I had known then what I know now.

The tingle in my hands became a vibration. A desire to open the book entered my mind and took hold of me, like black oil spilling onto an untouched shoreline and seeping deep between the crags and stones. I ignored the strange smell, my burning fingertips, the fine hairs on my neck pulling skyward. Curiosity had infected me and I was its helpless prisoner. My fingers trembled as they undid the metal clasps that held it shut. I opened it. That smell... I still can't forget it. It was not merely musky, but ancient, beyond time and space. It smelled like the sky on some far away world trapped in perpetual night as bizarre figures swayed in cold wind beneath its fearsome moon.

My eyes barely made out the first page, a blank parchment, when a beam of blinding light engulfed me in its radiance. My back arched in pain. I cried out but I could not move. Terror froze me. I feared any movement would shred me like a leaf spinning uncontrollably through a torrent of wind.

Abruptly, the horrible light became darkness. I blinked twice before realizing I was surrounded by the infinite void of space. Stars and nebulae swirled and burned in their never ending agony. I wondered if I too had become something of the cosmos, if my body had been scattered to the galaxy like dust.

No. I realized I was a woman. Inside some sort of propulsive structure. A ship? My hair was long, fiery red, and held in a ponytail. My slender fingers grazed over a control panel of blinking buttons and complicated labels. Voices murmured behind me. My body turned and I saw I was in a bulky astronaut suit.

And then...

The universe burned away. I saw the Earth in flames. No longer was I the woman in space but a disembodied witness. I saw buildings reduced to ash, men and women and children covered in blood and gore. Missiles whistled above me and debris exploded in a fantastic scream of metal and fire. I was powerless to do anything but watch, bound tight within the vision's sinister rapture.

And then...

My mother? I saw... I...

It came so fast. The sheets of a hospital bed, my father's strong hand clamped to my shoulder, men in protective chemical masks frowning. I grasped at the edges of the visions but they slipped from me, repelled. It looked so real.. how could this... I...


I slammed back to the reality of my library with a great gasp of air. My entire body pulsed with a thunderous rhythm, my shirt clung to my slim torso, damp and hot. I finally released the book and it hit the ground with an all too ordinary thud. An energy with no name had seized me, wrestled control from my mind and body. That book, what the hell had it shown me? Why?

It didn't take long to realize I was not the only one affected by the book's seismic power. Every single book in my library had been torn from the shelves and tossed haphazardly into random directions. The floors were blanketed in novels, textbooks, dictionaries, manuals, sheet music, and everything else I had painstakingly catalogued and organized over my career as History Archives librarian. As I struggled to catch my breath, I stared fearfully at the leather bound book at my feet.

In less than a minute, my formerly quiet life had gotten much, much louder.

End of Chapter 2

To Be Continued

Thanks so much for reading. Send all comments and feedback to: or tweet me at @Quinn_DK