I found myself in a small four foot by four foot by six foot box of a room when I finally woke up. I guess they figured that by confining me to a small enough area that I wouldn’t be stupid enough to invoke anything that would take up too much space.
“You are awake, Mrs. Oppenheimer?” a male voice grated over the static laden speaker in the ceiling of the room.
“And hungry,” I grouched. My stomach was pinching. I had blacked out for who knows how long. I needed to stop making that a habit.
“Well, you’re going to have to deal with that for a little while longer,” the voice buzzed. The electronics crackled and snapped. Maybe they were trying to torture my ear drums. If it was on purpose, they were doing a pretty good job of it.
“So, what’s a Shifter?” I asked the speaker.
“Something exceedingly rare, Mrs. Oppenheimer. In your case, we’ve never seen it,” was the reply provided me.
“Have I gone insane?” I asked. I was able to just barely find a comfortable way to sit down.
“You were not done Phasing when we tested you and accelerate your development. You were complaining about being left in your last room for three days. That was to allow your mind to finish Phasing before testing to see where you topped out. You were not finished Phasing when we let you out,” the man answered. At least they were being kind enough to actually talk to me about this.
“Is Claude okay?” I asked.
“Why do you ask?” the man asked, a bit of surprise in his voice.
“He was pretty nice to me and I wasn’t really playing fair. I might be locked in a little box at the moment, and hating the fact that you’ve all done this to me, but that doesn’t mean I can’t still have you know, morals,” I said. I knew I was being a little underhanded in guilt tripping, but hey, whatever was going to see me out of this box and into a food line.
“Yeah, he came out of it and is doing fine. He’s taking a couple days off,” the static cracked.
“So, what do we do now?” I asked. What were they planning to do to me?
“We’re just trying to evaluate your psychological stance before letting you interact with anyone or anything,” he answered. It occurred to me, while he was talking, that I could just recite an old nursery rhyme about a set of pigs having roast beef. Bam, I had a plate of divine food in my hand. Oh, god, that was the best meal I think I had ever had. When you are starving, that first meal, whether it be flour paste or caviar, is always the one that you will remember best.
“I see you are capable of still Reading out what you need while in there,” the man noted.
“Am I not supposed to?” I asked, devouring the juicy, tender, savory meat like it was going out of style.
“Do you not have a headache?” the man asked, cryptically.
“Well, the static on your mic or this intercom really does suck. You should see about getting a better electrician. Other than that, I’m fairly used to have headaches when I haven’t eaten consistently. Low blood sugar or something like that. It’s an easy thing to fix as long as I can eat something,” I answered. I was filling in blanks though that they probably had something going on to be giving me this headache. It felt different then when I was low on food. It wasn’t skull splitting, but it sure was close to migraine level.
I heard a jingle at the door to my box of a cell. It creaked open and the light from outside was blinding. I blinked up, feeling like a bat caught in high beams.
“You wanted to see your husband?” a male voice asked. I looked up to see a guard reaching a hand down to help me up. I waved the plate of roast beef away and it immediately disappeared. I grabbed his hand and allowed the man to pull me to my feet. “I would appreciate it greatly,” I answered amiably. I followed him down the hall. We walked for what felt like an hour until we hit a pair of doors labeled Reference Library. He motioned me through the doors and locked them after I went through. I dropped my head against the door. I had probably just been shammed into coming here at the hope of seeing my family again. At least I wasn’t in the little box anymore.
I breathed out a frustrated sigh and decided to survey my new domain. It looked like a massive legal library. Tight, almost never opened binding reached far enough back that I couldn’t see the end walls in either direction. I could be lost in here for the rest of my life and never find the exit. I contemplated staying at the door, in case I really was placed here for that purpose. My curiosity though got the better of me. I wondered just how far the library could possibly reach, and what kinds of books were on the shelves. It was a reference library after all.
I started out down the walkway, deciding not to delve too deep into the racks, always keeping near the wall that led back to the doors. The shuffle of my stocking feet on the carpet was all the noise of the tomb like sanctuary until it was broken, three hundred rows in by a scribbling, scratching sound. I slowed down, my adrenaline pumping. For all I knew, they kept the minotaur in this labyrinth. “Jeb, is that you? Can you go find me that book by Mintz on astral projection? I want to see if it correlates with this one,” a familiar, male voice asked. I peeked around the corner of the stack to find a plate of long platinum blond hair tied back with a brown rubber band. A tight black shirt gripped hard muscle. A pair of dark denim jeans bunched over bare feet. A sword leaned against the table. I quickly and silently Read out a pair of hand knives, all too ready to duke it out with the cotton candy clown of death all over again.
“Jeb?” Simil asked again, turning around. Startled, he glanced at the knives in my hands before my face. “Mrs. Alice?” he asked, reaching for his sword. I stepped back, knowing that I could probably lose him in the stacks. He unhanded his sword and I eased my posture.
“What are you doing in here?” Simil asked. I wasn’t entirely sure if I really wanted to talk to him. I wasn’t too thrilled to find out I had been left in here with him.
“A guard brought me here,” I told him, letting the knives vanish.
“A guard? No one was supposed to let you out of there,” Simil was edgy.
“Well, he brought me here, not like I was trying to sneak out,” I leaned against the far stack, forcing Simil to turn around to look at me.
“You’re not going to flood the place or something, are you?” he asked.
“You’re not going to make it rain blueberries and teacups are you?” I asked him back.
He raised an eyebrow at the question. “So, you’ve been informed of the Mad Hatter,” he stated.
“Claude mentioned it before my quizzes,” I figured it was safe enough to talk to the guy…from way over here.
“Claude’s trying to get over the fact that you almost drowned him,” Simil admonished.
“Claude seems like a nice enough fella, but you guys are the ones forcefully keeping me down here,” I countered. I felt bad for Claude up to a point, but I wasn’t about to go all Stockholme syndrome on this guild. Simil stared at me silently, waiting.
“What is a Shifter?” I asked, sitting down against the end cap of the stack. Simil gave me a second, considering his words.
“A Shifter is an individual who can do almost the impossible in the guild. They can Read out stories that they have memorized. Most can only do it as long as they recite it out loud from a visual aid. Most have to have an unReading verse that is actually spoken. You however, are one in very few who can Read out a story without having to say it and unRead it without having to recite a full line. You are what most normal people would look at and think was a true magician. Merlin was a Shifter,” Simil supplied.
“And what becomes of these rare Shifters?” I prodded.
“They become Simils,” the man answered, sadly. I let that sink in, slowly. I wasn’t even sure how to respond to that.
“You are the first female Shifter I’ve ever seen,” Simil broke the awkward silence.
“There have never been female Simils before?” I asked.
“Very rarely – they are referred to as Deweys,” Simil answered.
“So, you’re a Shifter, and that’s why the guild uses you like a guard dog? You can do what I can do?” I asked, a bit interested.
“At least I have enough training not to go unBound,” he answered.
“unBound?” I asked. I had a feeling I knew what that meant, but figured it would be nice to have it clarified to see if my suspicions were correct.
“Readers are able to bring out things by way of their emotions. Sometimes, if a Shifter is emotionally pushed too far, they can go unBound, which is when they can pull off more Readings of higher levels. It can have a pretty nasty backlash though. You really do use up a lot of energy on your brain generating something into reality. unBound can also happen if you overRead. If you have a limit of say, four readings – what an average guild member can manage, and you push yourself to five, you can go unBound. You just become emotionally unstable and not yourself. Most guild members though, if they go unBound, can’t Read out anymore while they are in an unBound state, so they don’t really cause chaos, they just end up having a nervous breakdown of sorts. I must admit the guild does not have very good guide lines in managing individuals who Phase later in life. It happens, but not frequently enough for it to be more than a once every other year or so. Frequently the guild deals in kids at about the elementary school range, and they are treated much differently. Their parents are contacted and the kids are enrolled in a guild run private institute where they can be trained in Reading and managing their abilities,” Simil motioned for me to take a seat with him at the table. I looked at his hand skeptically, wondering if it was really that safe to sit so close to him. I decided it wasn’t going to matter too much. If we had to, we could conduct a war between Shifters.
I slid into the seat next to him. He had quite a pile of rather old astrology and alchemy books laid out on the table. I had to wonder at what the research was he was conducting. Most of it was written in a script of late English that I couldn’t read well enough to understand the context.
“It’s probably a blessing to the guild that you are not proficient in more than English,” Simil commented. He had noticed my glances at his books.
“I’m not sure it would have been a good thing if I could either,” I conferred. Just because I had this new ability, didn’t mean I liked it. “Most Shifters are found when they are in elementary school and are trained to be able to read quite a lot of languages to a point of proficiency so as to have the most potential for the guild,” he started closing up the books.
“How are you able to read stuff and not have, you know, Peter Pan come flying out of your books?” I asked.
“It takes time to learn how to block off your emotional attachment to the content of the book. Fiction probably isn’t as fun that way, but when you allow your emotions to muddle in with what you read, well…you know what happens,” Simil answered.
I stared at him, rather openly and unabashed. He stared back. He looked familiar to the extreme. It was confusing to no end. The eyes and the hair were really throwing me off though. I didn’t know anyone with blond hair the length he had his, or a man with a pink and a black eye. “Why do I know you?” I asked, finally willing to make a fool of myself.
“Probably because you married me,” Simil answered. I stared at him, searching his face. The shape was right, but where had my Carl’s brown eyes gone? Where had his short burr of black hair disappeared to. “Carl?” I asked, still trying to accept the complete change that had taken over.
“Took you quite a while to see it, huh?” he asked.
“What happened to you?” I asked.
“You know all those business trips?” he asked me. I was still trying to really see my Carl in this blonde man. I nodded. “I’ve been with the guild since I was four. Those trips were always to come back to assist with issues that cropped up and needed some help. This last trip though…our old Simil was starting to suffer from dementia and couldn’t Read anymore, so, the Shifters ended up testing and I ate the Mad Hatter and became the new Simil. Once you become Simil…you take on characteristics of the character. I didn’t know how to come home to you looking like this,” he motioned to his eyes.
“Dante?” I asked, realizing that with two Shifters for parents…it could only mean he had a high genetic probability for this to develop.
“He’s been moved to the institute to be monitored. Because you Phased later, he might not develop his talents until after high school, but if he’s to actually see us again, he needs to know what’s happening.
“Does the Chair know about us?” I asked Carl.
“I had to tell them after you went unBound. Because the Chair isn’t even informed of Shifters names – it just isn’t of great importance to them, they didn’t realize that you were my wife when they brought you in. I must apologize for the treatment you received in the courtroom and during the last few days. I must tell you also that, by the fact that I ate the Mad Hatter, I do have split personalities now. If the guild is in danger, the Mad Hatter tends to rise up and muck about with my actions. I cannot tell you how sorry I am about the whole sword thing,” he bowed his head over his hands apologetically. I reached over and rested my hand on his.
“What do you mean by you ate the Mad Hatter?” I asked, not even touching the sword.
He glanced away from me, shifting restlessly. “You have an idea of how to project your emotions outward to the world and bring out something you Read, right?” he asked me. I didn’t really get it yet, but I had a decent enough grasp to nod my head. “There’s a type of reverse process to it, where you actually build the thing you read inside of yourself. You run a deep risk of going unBound, but if you can manage not to, you “eat” the experience. That emotion you built up so heavily manifests sort of inside of you. If it’s a character from a book, it’s like inviting them to occupy a space in your head. You willingly develop a second personality. Simils are almost always provided with a strong willed character that is different from their normal personality. The guild does try not to repeat characters. We’ve been through so many. I’m kind of at a loss as to why they chose Alice in Wonderland this term. That book is such an l.s.d. fest, it was rather a dangerous move,” he was twisting my wedding ring. I noticed that he had taken his off. I searched around until I realized he had it on a necklace.
“So…what does this make us, Carl?” I finally built up the nerve to ask. I had felt like we had been drifting apart for the last couple of years. What was this to do to us now?
“I’ve lied to you about who I am for our entire time together and you want to know what we are still?” he asked, confused. He hadn’t let go of my hand, and I could feel it trembling at the question he posed.
“You love us. You are Dante’s father. You’ve always supported us and encouraged me to be everything I ever wanted to be. You’ve never said a mean word to me or been cruel in any manner. I don’t think those are things that you can fake, those are who you really are. I just have to relearn your backstory. Shall we start over?” I asked. I knew I was reaching. I knew I had every right to be angry with Carl for this deceit.
Carl leaned his head on my hands, a sigh escaping him. “I would love that, very much.”
“What will they do with me now?” I asked, my hand gripping his tighter.
“Depends on what you do for them. If you work with them, they will most likely put you in line to become a Dewey. If you work against them, they will come at you,” he looked me in the eye.
“And you?” I asked.
“I can try my best to help you overcome this challenge. As it stands, you are the least of the Chair’s concerns. Though a rare shifter, what the Chair is after right now is answers to the disappearance of Cheryl,” Carl leaned back in his chair, pondering the ceiling tiles.
“I never did get to meet her. I take it she’s someone in the guild?” I asked, fiddling with a book cover.
“She was part of our antique metaphysical manuscript research division. When she disappeared, she was in the midst of looking over a series of legends on spirit based creatures from China. One of the manuscripts disappeared with her. Though it was not worth as much as many of the manuscripts we have here, it still could become a problematic document if it fell into an anarchic Reader’s hand,” Carl informed me. Goosebumps ran their way up my arm and neck. This didn’t sound like a good thing.
“Spirits?” I pressed.
“It was a prelude to the Shanhaijing,” he supplied.
“I’ve never heard of it,” confused, I shift in my chair.
“ The Shanhaijing itself contains within it a series of geographic descriptions for finding mythical creatures, such as serpents large enough to consume elephants whole, or the more famous nine tailed fox,” he picked up his wide variety of texts and started to lead me around the research library, putting the texts back. “Here, carry this for me would you?” he asked, handing me his sword. Good lord I didn’t know just how heavy those things could be. The fact that he could easily manuever that thing like it was plastic was intimidating.
“Jeez, where did this come from?” I asked, hefting it to keep it from dragging on the floor. It was at least half my height, though now that I actually have to admit it, it was more like 3/4th, but I don’t like saying I’m short.
“It’s a degen I pulled out of a 15th century military arts manuscript that was discovered near the Rhine last year,” he said nonchalantly. I blinked at him. Just how many languages did he know? I sighed, knowing there there were just too many questions I would be asking. “What does the prelude contain?” I allowed myself to ask. Snakes were becoming a reoccurring theme recently, and I figured that was probably a more important question at the moment.
“The prelude contains descriptions of the various gods that have companions and command these spirits,” Carl opened up one of the books from the shelf and slipped one of his texts into it. The book from the shelf was nothing more than a box I realized. I blinked and looked around me. The books in the library weren’t just new, never before read manuals. They were all boxes to keep the old texts safe. The library suddenly felt even larger than before, if that was possible. “Gods?” I continued to follow him.
“And when those are let loose, we end up with some seriously big problems, not just for the Guild. You know how much the Guild pays various governments just to keep quiet to cover stuff up?” he turned to me. I felt like a deer in headlights. I wasn’t entirely sure Carl and I had actually had a conversation real conversation in…I’m not even sure I could remember how many months.
“Do I know you?” I asked.
“No, but I hope we can get along well,” he smiled to me. I blushed heavily, a small smile tugging at my lips.