Well, I guess I wasn’t going to go take a quiz immediately. Mindy was just another trial, another test. I was led to a small dorm room. Jail cell was more like it. There was a top level bunk bed with a desk and chair underneath it. Behind a curtain was a toilet and sink combination. It was grey and more than very sparse. There wasn’t even a window. Not that there would be anything for it to look out on. After all, I had to remind myself, I was something around ten or twenty stories underground, at least, from what I remembered. I was unconscious for a part of that rather annoying neuro-toxin induced intermission that might have me in the Tower of London for all I knew. I looked around the room. There wasn’t even a light switch on the inside of the room.
I spent three shifts of lights going on and off in my room. I spent three days in solitary confinement pretty much. At least, that’s what I figured those lights going on and off ment. It was in that cramped isolative cell that it dawned on me, late one dark shift that they had gotten it wrong. I foreread my words. In the jury gallery I had foreread about a paragraph worth of material before reading out loud. In the educator’s room I had read the paragraph with the snakes silently, not out loud. They had gotten it wrong, it wasn’t the reading out loud that triggered it.
This terrified me worse knowing that anything I read could come alive whether I read it outloud or silently. I would never be able to read again at that cost. What about the books I wrote? Would I not be able to write and read what I wrote? At the very least they thought that I couldn’t bring forth something through a language that I did not know the meaning of. Well, at least I think that is what they meant to have me find out when I read the Latin looking banner in the jury gallery. Three days of these questions in a silent room. Three days of wondering where my husband was. Three days of wondering if my son was okay. Three days of my brain unraveling in a knotted heap on the floor.
A man showed up at my door by the third day. I felt frazzled, and emotionally drained. I seethed though. These people had kept me here, and they were in for it when I was able to get ahold of something to read. “Ms. Alice? I’m here to take you for your first day of quizzes,” the burly man told me. “No,” I responded. I sat down on my bunk, crossed my leg and humphed – quite like a spoiled brat. I knew this wasn’t going to work for long, but there had to be some give.
“Ma’am, there’s no doing that. If you’re not to your station, you’ll be sent to see the chair and Simil directly. I don’t think you want to do that, Ma’am,” he walked into the tiny room. He took up most of the space. There was going to be nowhere for me to dodge off to when he got to me. He hoisted me up by my arm. “And is that supposed to scare me?” I bit out, trying to tug myself free. “Yes, ma’am. The chair has no problem sicking their dog on anyone who doesn’t do what they say,” he pulled me out the door and started walking down the hall.
“Dog? The cotton candy clown of death?” I asked. My brain had a difficult time fully comprehending just how deadly Simil was, just because his clothes really didn’t seem inherently evil.
“You don’t want to come up against that man. He’s the guard of the guild if you may,” he shared. Well, if the guy was going to be amiable enough to share on all the gossip of the library, I might as well find out what there was to know – even if that meant a hand shaped bruise on my upper arm by the end of this day.
“Where did they come up with that nut job anyway?” I snapped, still trying to pull free. Deception at it’s lowest can still glean pertinent information.
“Hah, you’d never guess. I heard that when he came in to become Simil he was made to consume the Mad Hatter. The last one we had – about four months ago, consumed Mr. Hyde. This new Simil beat him at the quizzes and Hyde Simil was retired,” he told me.
“Hyde Simil? So this new guy is called Simil not because it’s his name but because he’s what, titled with it?” I asked, a bit confused.
“When they’re made into Simil, they lose their name. When they are retired by the chair, it is revealed what they consumed to become Simil – though most of us can make a pretty good guess, and then they receive that title. We’ve had Hyde Simil, Moriarty Simil, Shere Khan Simil, oh, I could go on. There’s been a Simil since the first great library of Alexandria,” he told me. I could feel my heart sink. The Guild had been around for millenia. I stopped resisting. If they had been doing it for this long, there was going to be no escaping this problem.
The guard loosened his grip on my arm when I started walking calmly by his side. “You alright, ma’am?” he asked.
I looked up at him, trying not to cry. “No, I’m not alright. I’m a graduate student just trying to become a librarian. Then supernatural mumbo jumbo happens to me. Now I’m stuck at the center of the earth with madmen who can bring things out of books, and I can too. I don’t know how my son is doing. I don’t know if my husband is alive. Now I have this odd ball ability. I don’t know if this means I’ll never be able…able to read again,” I was beginning to sob at this point. “I used to write books you know. What happens if I read one of my own books? What about advertisement boards, or contract fine prints? I can’t go to a library for fear of…well…you don’t really care about this do you?” Tears were streaming down my face. I felt my legs sink underneath me.
“Oh, please don’t be like that, ma’am. It’s a great ability to Read out a book. If you know how to do it properly, you can make stories come alive for little kids, or help sway the opinions of people. You can get a better understanding of what an author truly meant by their works,” he tried to reassure me. He crouched down next to me and whiped a tear from my eye.
“Ability? With the threat of death if I don’t do what these chair people tell me to do?” I bit back, burying my face in my hands.
“It’s so that we don’t end up with people doing things that will endanger others. We don’t need a whole bunch of villains running around, or gods for that matter if you read out a metaphysical text,” he told me.
“Villains? Right,” I said skeptically.
“You remember War of the Worlds?” he asked me as he pulled me to my feet.
“Read it in eighth grade,” I replied as I started walking. I wiped at my eyes, trying to quit crying.
“Yeah, we had an idiot read that out in Roswell in the 1940s. Legends abounded forever after that of alien spacecraft. They were lucky one of the commanders at the base was able to unread sci-fi so well,” he told me. “You’re just lucky you aren’t one of those super smart three year olds that can Read at this age. That is a true nightmare when we get those youngsters in because they don’t understand logic and reason. Well they do, but it’s their personal logic. If they want the Velveteen Rabbit or Winnie the Pooh to come alive, we end up with a honey pot tree in the lobby for a month,” he told me laughing.
“I take it that has happened before?” I asked.
“My daughter did that last year. God, the guild was filled with so many freaking horses and living plush toys. We had a life size Barbie walking around…I cannot tell you how many guards ended up in disciplinary hearing for that one. I kept finding Olivia and Corduroy cooking bullion in the lounge microwave,” he facepalmed. I laughed. I couldn’t help it. The imagery was just too adorable.
“It’s good to hear you laugh ma’am,” he smiled at me. I smiled back. I was still upset at my situation, but the fact was that these were still people working here, and each of them had a family that was dear to them, and troubles that they had to deal with.
“Why do they insist on jailing me?” I asked him. We turned down a corner in the hall and he opened up a set of double doors. I found myself in some massive accoustics room the size of a large ballet theater. There were a pair of floating decks that hung a story above the floor. He pointed me to a flight of stairs and I started to climb.
“Children are simple, naive creatures who’s only frequent evil is the drive to be self-fullfing in their naive way. Teenagers and adults though are manipulative and can be terrifying. To have someone who Phased in their Scholarship at such an advanced age, not saying that you’re old or anything, no offense, we have to be careful of who we allow to roam around in the guild and who is safe to let out into the mortal world,” he said. I stopped midstride on the step and turned to the guard. “Mortal world?” I asked, suddenly very worried.
“Readers are still mortal, don’t worry about that. We mean it only in the way that there are those that can do things that most of the population cannot. Sorry, you’ll still die. I would joke about vampires here, but two years ago someone read out that sparkly vampire and the emo girl and we suffered their plight for about ten minutes before getting Van Helsing out to whoop them into useful shape. They’re rather productive janitors now,” he smiled at me and motioned for me to continue up the steps.
“I could see where this would be greatly useful if a director was a reader and he just had to Read the screenplay to film the movie,” I mused to myself.
“There are a few famous ones out there,” the guard winked at me.
We finally reached the top of the landing. There I found a large computer bank with three people behind desks and an empty spot in front of a podium that looked out over the cavernous room. Simil was sitting, sharpening his sword, in a lawnchair behind the people at the terminals. His eyes wavered from the screen and swiveled toward me. I heard, just for a beat, the hesitation of his honing stone from the blade as his eyes settled on me. The nagging feeling of familiarity crawled up my spine.
“Simil!” the guard squeaked before regaining his composure.
“Claude!” Simil squeaked back at the same frequency that the guard squeaked.
“Sir, if you don’t mind my impertinence, what are you doing here?” the guard asked.
“To watch, Claude. To see. I want to know about blueberry girl,” he pointed his gaze at me.
“Are you here to direct her at the podium?” Claude asked the cotton candy clown of death.
“Chairman nodded, chairman yes. I’m here to teach her how to use the podium,” he nodded, pulling himself out of his chair and walked over to me. He had changed from what he had worn at the jury gallery, now that I was truly looking at him. He had taken his wig off. He had long blonde hair that hung down to the middle of his waste. It was pulled back with a giant blue bow. He had a set of maybe eight piercing creeping up each ear. His strange pink eye and black eye bore holes through me. It was odd looking at him. He was crazy, yet his eyes were the most sane of anyone I had met there yet. He saw what the world was really like. It was topsy tervy and on its head. And I got that just as we looked at each other through that moment in time. It was an odd moment of realization that this was my world now and that it was just as insane as the other world that I had come from. This dog, this blade at my throat was there to keep their world safe. I might be a good, tax paying, rule abiding citizen on the top world, but down here, they didn’t know that. I could be the most manipulative beast they had ever seen, and at that exact moment in time – if it meant me getting out and back to my son and my husband, damn them, I’d do it. Games were a specialty of mine, the adept art of manipulation and subterfuge. If I wanted something, I could bluff and con my way till I got it. Let them burn, they had screwed with the wrong person.
Simil reached for me, pulling me close till his lips touched my ear. “You’ve changed,” he whispered in my ear. I glanced at his pink eye and willed myself to promise death in that look. “You’ve no idea,” I answered back. He let go of me and spun me toward the podium. I looked down at the floor one story below me. It had lines painted across the rock surface. At the other end of the stadium stood another podium and a bank of computer terminals. It dawned on me that there was another guy at that end. He was dressed like a guard. He too had people sitting at the terminal behind him.
“You, silver tongued lady,” Simil addressed me. I turned to him, he had gone back to sit at his chair. He pointed his sword to the people at the terminals. “Give them a book you need,” he said. I puzzled, looking from him to the bank. “Be quick if you want to live,” he chirped as he began honing the blade again.
“Valley of the Horses – Jean M. Auel,” I said quickly. It was one of my top books that I read at least once a month. One of the girls at the terminal quickly typed on her keyboard and pointed at the podium. I looked down to find the green letters on the black computer screen. I flipped through page after page, willing myself to not read more than one word in a sentence until my eyes settled on Baby and his mate’s exploits in the cliff. I willed myself to not see the sentences in whole. I had to cover what I could do, even if I didn’t fully understand how it worked.
“20,000 Leagues Under the Sea!” the man across the way shouted. Then he began reading off a line I wasn’t familiar with. The creaking crash of the floor turning into water startled me. Nemo’s submarine broke through what had turned to an ice covered pool. “Read off your book or unRead him!” Simil yelled at me. I glared back at him. How was I supposed to know that was what they were expecting of me. “War of the Worlds and Treasure Island,” I yelled as I began reciting the lines that brought forth a pair of ravenous sabertooth cats and a cromagnon woman on a steppe horse. In minutes the creatures were rushing across the iceburgs, charging the crew of Nemo’s submarean who were emerging from the hatch. The cats sank their teeth into the throats of crew and the woman, packing a deadly sling shot was bringing them down faster than I expected a slingshot to do.
“The Tempest and Screenplay to Twister!” the man shouted for his terminal people to pull up for him. I was already rushing through the pages for the aliens and the canon ball firing ship. I spoke out the laser bearing aliens and Nemo’s ship was disintigrated just as a horrid hurricane came baralling to wipe the floor clean. My ship lead by Long John Silver disappeared in the vortex.
“Dune, Dragondrums, and Hidalgo,” I yelled back, pulling out the desert planet and the thread burning dragons as a herd of Arab horsemen came pouring across the surface toward the man’s twister. The twister sucked up sand and the dragons set it on fire, engulfing that side of the room. The horsemen drew out 19th century rifles and started firing in the chaos at the man’s platform.
“Concession!” I heard the shout.
“UnRead your characters, silver tongue!” yelled Simil. I had about had it with the shouting.
“Desert of the wind and the storm, erase this memory, scour the grain, escape the brain, begone vile heathen of the others,” and like that, the floor was back to normal. There was no sign of the burning twister. The only difference was the man standing buckled over his podium, one of his terminal personal hunched over him, looking at a wound. A green flag was raised and the man was led from the podium
“You got him,” Claude came over and tapped a direction into the terminal. Up pulled my name and a set of numbers next to it.
“What do you mean?” I asked as I tried to decipher the numbers.
“You physically injured him with your Reading. That means that you won the match,” he answered, nonchalantly. “Ah, see, here,” he pointed as a set of digits rolled over. “You’re a rank 1 novice with a silver tongue ranking and your first marked passing quiz,” he told me. The numbers to me didn’t mean anything like what he had just said.
He pressed a button and a buzzar went off. Another man came up at the far podium. “You’d better get ready to reset. You won, so you read first,” he told me as he stepped back to the terminals to watch.
“Name of the Rose, Sherlock Holmes, The Mask of the Red Death,” I asked the terminal girls for. One of them looked at me skeptically. I wanted to see if this was just brute force, or a game of wits.
From these three I brought out the maze like house of Poe’s novellet, the gruesome deaths and graveyards of the Name of the Rose and Sherlock Holmes, and waited as the blood began to pool out across the floor. For good measure I added in the memorized line I knew of The Raven and had the black bird settle macabe on the miniature building to cry Nevermore across the scene. The smell of rot and decay left the man running to hurl, conceeding.
“Gross,” Claude told me as he too ended up losing his lunch in the waste basket next to the terminals. The girls didn’t look too pleased either with the wretched stench.
“Gruesome, little silver tongue. Who thought you’d bring out red?” Simil looked at me with a slight shine of horror in his odd eyes.
A green flag was raised without the man even trying to counter. “UnRead it, Ms. Alice,” Claude tried not to hurle again, and failed.
“The black feathers, forked tongue, mazes of Icarus, Aristotles laughter, slither and pour, clean the shores, begon to the grave with you,” I dropped, my head pounding. Claude checked the numbers on the podium. “Dear God, I’ve never seen someone do that,” Claude told me. He knelt next to me and laid his hand across my forehead. “Platinum level. You jumped two levels just by that little trick,” he told me, helping hoist me to my feet.
“Simil?” I asked, turning to him. The sword no longer frightened me, now that I knew, without even having The Raven in front of me that I was able to bring it out, that as long as I knew the quotes, I could bring forth whatever I needed.
“Here to watch, here to hear. Here to be the barrier, dear. One must watch and one must learn, or else the whole world on its knees will burn,” he chirped.
“That’s reassuring,” I replied, and then I did something that surprised even me. I walked over to Simil. I could see out of the corner of my eye Claude just began to run after me. In the same fluid motion, I eased the honing stone from Simil’s right hand and the sword from his left hand and sat down on his lap to begin honing the blade. He blinked at me, his hands settling around me, startled. I rested my head against his padded shoulder and felt the beat of his heart under the cloth. I honed the blade for maybe half a minute before I found myself talking, like when the little cute girl helped me in the education room. “Cotton candy clown, what spell have you cast?” I kissed him on the cheek. “Blades are sharp, blades are death, blades are not always the best. Sometimes the word, sweet as wine, can undue everything that binds,” I whispered in his ear as I handed the blade and honing stone back to him. I stood up and straightened my clothes. “You might tell your master, little dog, that he better send someone more terrifying,” I smiled maniacally. I had cracked. I had jumped off of the deep end head first. I had decided I had enough of this bullshit.