It seemed that the hallways were perpetually empty. Maybe it was that the complex was so vast that it distributed people well enough to make it rare for more than a couple of people to occupy the halls at any one time. I was perpetually amazed at the layout of the tunnels. There were no signs at the corners of the walls telling which way to go to access certain places. There were no labels on the doors to tell me if we were inside a housing block or in front of meeting rooms.
“Why are there no directions down here?” I finally asked, after what felt like my fifteenth turn. Carl blinked at me, perplexed.
“What is it that you see?” he asked. A cold chill ran down my spine.
“Am I not seeing something I’m supposed to?” concerned, I looked around quickly for any signs. All that lay around me were gray barren fiberglass walls, grey and white checked linoleum, drop ceiling tiles, and massive rectangular halogen lights.
“When you grow up in the guild, it doesn’t occur to people to actually explain to newbies what’s going on. Gah, seriously they need to send newcomers to school, no matter the age,” Carl grouched, running his hand through his ponytail.
“Carl?” I asked.
He sighed and looked around. “Quite typically members of the guild will see the guild as different things, depending upon the individual. This area that we are in right now is the vast promenade of Victorian aged Paris. Each of these door leads to a different workshop where guild members practice their various crafts. Just because a person can read out a book does not mean it is their job. Many of the people here continue on with trade skills, scholarly research, science experiments. This area is for the craft trades. See, here,” he proceeded to open one of the many unmarked grey fire doors. I peered in. It was a completely different place than what I had expected. Inside was a full blown blacksmithy. True, the high ceilings were significantly vented, but still, within stood rows of forges, anvils, tools of the trade. It was deafeningly loud. It reeked of the hot metal and burning fuel sources.
A man waved to Carl, who waved back. He was of medium build, with gray, thinning hair. He wore about him a massive leather apron, gloves with scorch marks, and boots pocked with cinder ash. He hurried over to us, shaking Carl’s hand. “Simil, it is so nice to see you again. You don’t stop in often enough,” the man greeted him.
“Laury, how are the railings for the upper balcony coming along?” Carl smiled back.
“Oh, you know Gregor, he’s been finagling them into perfection…which means they are five months behind schedule, as usual,” the man smiled. Then his eyes slid over to me. “And who might this lovely woman be that you would bless me with such beauty this early in the day?” the man beamed to me. I reached out to shake his hand. He took it, and instead of shaking it, he bent low and kissed it.
I blushed, never having had that happen to me before. “You seem quite charming yourself,” I mumbled with an embarrassed smile.
“This is Mrs. Grace-Alice Oppenheimer. The Chair has left her in my charge. Mrs. Grace-Alice, this is Laury McCaffrey, resident Blacksmith master, and best bass singer in the guild choir,” Carl bowed slightly enough to the man.
“Oh you fool,” Laury turned a bright red, ribbing Carl with a smirk.
“When is your next performance Laury? I wish Mrs. Grace-Alice to hear the great choir and see the dancing images,” Carl continued to lavish the man with attention.
“It’s not so great,” Laury downplayed. “We’ll be performing in a fortnight, if you would care to join us in the great hall,” he offered before one of his apprentices brought a finely detailed rail to be checked over.
“Well, I’ll leave you to it Laury. I’ll see you at the performance and buy you a drink after,” Carl waved as we emerged back into the hall.
“He was nice,” I commented as we began walking the infinite halls again.
“He is a bit lost in thought most days, but he’s a good guy over all. His wife watches the babies in the daycare. They never had any of their own,” supplied Carl as we began a long walk down another hall. “Back on topic though,” he began again, “what I see when I walk through this area that we just turned down is a bazaar in Bahrain, circa early twentieth century. The people may not be about, but the clothing and trinket stalls becon. Down further will be the rows of booksellers. I can never be lost, for I see what is right before me. I know this map. I have been lost in these many rooms, meeting and learning about the humanity of these gifted people,” he smiled, broadly flinging his hands out to the barren grey halls.
“All I see is a grey and white linoleum floor, grey, barren walls, firedoors, halogen lights and dingy ceiling tiles. It’s just grey on grey and goes on in infinum,” I expressed remorsefully. Carl stopped walking to look at me. “Really? You see the base layer?” he asked.
“The structure of the building?” I surmised.
“Yeah, not many people of the guild actually see what the structure is comprised of,” he commented, looking around, seeming to try to see through a veil for the first time.
“So, it’s an associative memory thing. You think of Paris, or Bahrain, or London for different hallways and create a mental map of this place that way?” I supplied, still not believing that people really saw more than the grey labyrinth.
“I have heard some people say that it looked like a massive hospital ward, that names were on every door, little arrows at every corner. Others have told me that it is a jungle, and still others talk of being lost in a massive library. These halls, if you look closely are supposedly covered in transcriptions so tiny you’d need a microscope to see the letters. Any Reader will subconsciously seek out the words in the walls to create a visual world to combat the drudgery of the labyrinth. I am sorry that you have no world to see here,” Carl said almost murously, leading me down another corridor. “Maybe,” he perked back up, “when you have grown accustomed to this place, met more people, you will start seeing the halls as something more than a dreary grey world,” he tried to give me a smile.
Finally, after what had to be a solid fifteen minutes of walking, we found ourselves in front of a pair of large oak doors, an interesting difference from the firedoors, though now, it made me concerned as to the nature of the door, if it was really oak, or if it was a firedoor with the illusion transcript that Carl had mentioned. “While we are here, Gracey, please forgive me for having you do this, but I need for you to call me Simil. No one will know me by Carl, which will only lead to confusion,” he held my hand, imploring me to understand.
“Is that why you didn’t introduce me as your wife to Laury?” I asked, shifting uncomfortably.
“I did something not approved of for Readers of our caliber. I married, but I never told the Chair about it. It’s not prohibited, just, we are told it will be difficult on our partner and are discouraged from it. Only five Simil in our history took on a family in the guild. Often, they did not end well. Usually only because of the Simil split personality. I…” Carl looked concerned, unable to meet my eye.
“You didn’t know you’d be chosen,” I consoled him, though I understood his concern.
“I never thought I could. Someone older…someone more practiced in the politics of this place…someone…else,” he answered, looking off into the distance of his mind. “True, from our young years, when those of us suitable for candidates are found, we are told to be wary of turning to love,” the grip on my hand tightened. I laid my other hand on top of his.
“Let’s eat,” I supplied, trying to draw him off the path he was on. He nodded solemnly. He turned to the door and opened it into the raucous chaos that was the cafeteria. Inside, along one wall was an L-shaped buffet line, where individuals were lined up with trays. Filling in from there to the other end were large eight seater tables, three deep, at least thirty to the wall. A wall of glass looked out on another courtyard, this one filled with tropical plants. I followed him to the buffet and picked up my tray and plate. I filled it with so many tasty things, I knew I’d go up a size. He lead me to a table where a group was just leaving.
“Because of my position as the Chair’s guarddog, not many people will openly talk to me. More like when we met with Laury, we will have to seek out those that will speak with me,” apologized Carl when he realized that no one else would come to sit. I did not find it completely terrible at that moment, though I knew that it would become a rather sad, lonely life if it was to continue like this for too long.
“What do I need to be doing here, Simil?” I finally asked after wolfing down about half of my plate. A jolt of shock ran through Carl’s shoulders. He blinked, looking at me. An uneasy feeling slipped down my spine. I analyzed the man, wary.
“A Dewy to our Simil it might be called. The Chair wants to see you soon, just as you wish to see the Chair. Maybe we will find out more than we want…” a different voice escaped Carl’s throat. I was talking to the Mad Hatter.
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