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
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
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
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.
an aisle of 620s? Unthinkable! Believe it or not, this was the most excitement
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."
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
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
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.
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
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
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
"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.
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
Earth. Nonsense rah-rah exceptionalism if you ask me, but it gave me a topic to
"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
"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
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
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
"You work here?"
"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
"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
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
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
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
text and literature in the world." I stretched out my arms to illustrate the
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
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
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
a man before? I didn't move. A long, deep scar I hadn't noticed before
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
shrunk against my beating heart. Why wasn't he speaking? Why couldn't
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
"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
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
"What's this?" I followed.
"From your father. An invitation to the annual UGW Military Ball. It's a
"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
"Doubt you've given anyone any trouble in your life, librarian. You really have
no interest in going?"
"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
"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
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.
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,
to stay warm in her insightful and biting words. It was cruel of my
hold her from me. He knew there was nothing I looked forward to
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
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."
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
"Do you knights dress up for the occasion?"
"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?"
A boldness inside me grew. "Will I have a chance to follow up with you on how
curious you find me?"
"If you're not too distracted by the valkyries, I mean."
"The valkyries do not distract me, librarian."
"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
INCOMING MESSAGE FROM KNIGHT #102806 / EARTH BATTALION / VANGUARD-CLASS.
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.
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
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
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?
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.
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
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.
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
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
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: firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet me at @Quinn_DK