“So you seen, it’s just like any other machine. They come in broke, you send ‘em out fixed.”
“But… you send them where?”
The Head gives you a look like you’re a particularly interesting type of broken. “Into… the… bodies…”
You step back, looking around the clattering, busy room to avoid that piercing gaze. All around you, people run around, sparks fly, and machines hum. They move in perfect rhythm, echoing the odd hammering of your heart against your ribs. Why are you sweating? This needs to be done, after all.
You’re going to be professional. You said you would be, after all, when you were assigned here. So you look back at the Head, as if your skin wasn’t crawling. “Where do the souls come from?”
The Head’s lips twist, and he stabs a finger at the intake pipe, high up near the ceiling of the opposite wall. Glowing wisps travel along it, pulsing in crimson, azure, verdant green, dandelion yellow, or blazing orange. Some drift along with soothing serenity, while others collide with their neighbors and whip in a twisting frenzy. Souls, battling it out without the trappings of corporeal form.
But that wasn’t what you were asking.
The Head’s expression doesn’t bode well if you continue interrogating. You move forward, drifting toward the wall under the tube of luminous spirits. Faint screams travel to your ears, and you hold yourself very still to avoid shuddering. There’s a crack in the wall, so you peer through it, though you already know what you’ll find. That explains why the Soul Mechanic Shop is next to the prison.
Every single prisoner fights. Guards in black uniforms and stern expressions strap them down to the machine. Even when they must surely know it’s hopeless, not a single man or woman ceases the struggle. Not until the machine turns on, and the whipping, twisting soul emerges into the tube and the person goes calm and still. No longer a person. A shell.
You step back, turning around. The Head has gone—no doubt he’s got other things to do. Mechanics to organize. Machines to check. Souls to… fix. You shake yourself a little. The prisoners are violent, dangerous. They are deviant to the very core of them, to their very soul, which is why this place exists. Though the person can no longer re-enter society, the soul, at least, can be fixed.
So why do your heartstrings twist and clamor?
You follow the pipe, circling around the machines it enters, past the stations of mechanics with their various tubes and tools and electrified implements, and out the other side. The tube continues, though none of the wisps inside struggle any longer. For some reason, your heart sinks. Something vital has been lost, and no one in the shop has even noticed. Or perhaps they have noticed, but no longer care. That would be even worse.
The souls glow a unified blue, sedate, calm, passive, as they travel along the tube to the other wall. There’s a crack there, too, almost as if this was designed to satisfy newbie curiosity. Surely others before you have had these same questions, and surely the Head treated them with the same distant, distracted disdain. You peek through, of course. What else are you going to do?
A hospital. Not just infants on the other side, but patients lying in white smocks, as if asleep. Until the blue souls enter through the tubes that narrow, thinner and thinner until they enter the body through the big vein in the neck. One by one, the patients awake, disconnect themselves from the machine, and move on. Nurses or doctors, you aren’t sure which, replace those who leave the room with others, all sedated or unconscious or comatose. No one speaks a word. Only the squeak of the bed wheels and the hum of the life support apparatus makes a sound. It’s all done in perfect calm.
You do shudder now. Staring at the vibrancy of the spirits before the machines, and their calm afterward. As if the… as if the very soul has been sucked from them.
A wrench lies nearby. This is a mechanic shop, after all. You pick it up, heft its weight, and step forward.
It’s not smart, what you do. Not safe. But you don’t wait for the Head to inform you of that.
Because when a Heart breaks, it doesn’t only have to break itself.
It was the first day of Dream Season, and the village of Solander braced for the onslaught. Solander had all four seasons, of course: Growth, Harvest, Sleep, and Dream.
Estella hated Dream Season.
Growth was amazing. The kids would shoot up like weeds, and the adults would explore all those hobbies they’d longed to get to but hadn’t yet had time to work on. Last Growth Season, Estella’s mom had learned to play the piano, and now music drifted out of the house every night.
Harvest Season was also enjoyable. Not only were feasts regular, but those skills grown during the Growing Season were harvested with wisdom, solidifying as a true part of the adults. Mom’s piano playing became phenomenal as she poured her heart and soul into the music, moving listeners to tears or laughter.
Sleep Season was awful, but at least Estelle never remembered much of it. Just that the plants died back and everything was muted. Adults died during Sleep Season. Not all of them, of course, but if you were going to die, it was going to be during Sleep Season.
And now it was Dream Season. Mom said Dream Season was full of hope and brightness. It was when you remembered all those who had gone before and planned for what was ahead.
The only problem was, her mom should have died during the last Sleep Season. Papa had died instead.
And Estella wasn’t looking forward to facing him.
Mom caught on to her mood that night at supper. Root vegetable stew was enough reason all on its own to hate Dream Season. And it’d have to last all season. Estella moved her spoon through the thick sludgy mass listlessly, staring into the bowl without really seeing.
“Estella, it’ll be okay.”
Estella didn’t respond. Mom was only trying to be helpful, but lies didn’t make anything better.
Mom reached out and squeezed her hand. Slowly, as if it were she who was caught in the stew instead of just her spoon, she pulled her gaze upward to meet her mom’s earnest green eyes.
Mom smiled. “My heart’s light, I promise it’ll be okay. I know you’re scared.”
Scared wasn’t all of it though. And her feelings were so mixed up and tangled together it was impossible to separate one from another, just like the white paste of the stew’s gravy obscured which vegetables were parsnips and which were carrots, even to her taste buds.
But after all she’d done for her mom already, eating the slop before her was nothing, and it’d make Mom happy. She swallowed a bite, her fingers curling around her mom’s calloused hand.
“You can sleep tonight in my bed,” Mom offered.
Estella shook her head. She wasn’t a baby anymore. “I’m not going to go to sleep.”
“You can’t stay up all Dream Season.”
“I guess we’ll find out.”
Mom turned in her chair, taking both of her hands in hers. “Estella, look at me. I know you loved Papa. He won’t be mad at you.”
Tears sprang to her eyes, and the lump in her throat grew like the beans during the Growth Season. She shook her head. “Mom, I couldn’t lose you.”
“I know, darling. I know.”
“But I didn’t know. I didn’t mean it.”
“Papa loves you. He—”
Estella shook her head. She couldn’t stay. Everything was too much. The walls loomed over her, with Papa’s painting judging her. Between the table and the chair, she was trapped, just as she had been during Sleep Season. And she was going to throw up.
She sprang to her feet, needing air, needing out. Tears flew from her eyes as she ran, spattering the dirt floor of the house behind her.
Estella’s feet stopped at the Lighthouse of their own accord. The moon had risen, and nestled among the hills, the village was quiet and sleepy. How often had she run here and looked out over this peaceful view? She tightened her jaw against a yawn as the bright eye of the lighthouse scanned across her, brilliant white against the black of night.
But Papa was here too. She walked down the short entry hallway and refused to look at his portrait, last in a long line of Lighthouse Keepers. In here, there’s no way she’d be able to sleep. That’s why Papa had stayed here during Sleep Seasons, after all. She could stay here until the whole season had passed.
The Lighthouse was quiet, a fine layer of dust sprinkling the shelves that had never been there when Papa had tended the building. The gears turned soundlessly, and the beam of light twirled in its eternal dance. No one was here, of course. No one had replaced Papa yet.
Flinching away from the memories, Estella settled onto the cold hard floor by the bronze stand that held the massive light. She wrapped her arms around her legs and set her chin on her knees. Mom would know she came here, of course. It was where she always went when she was scared or sad.
She chewed on her lip, staring at the light that turned above her head. There to keep the Nightmares away, to signal for help in the Growing and Harvest Seasons in case the evil that grew and was harvested outweighed the good. And to light the way for those who died in the Sleep Season.
“I’m sorry.” The words crashed through the silence, shattering into pieces like the beam of light did the night.
Papa had been working here that night, as usual. He hadn’t been the one who was supposed to die.
“I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “I didn’t mean for… what happened.”
Estella had woken from a long sleep to see Death coming toward her house. No one ever saw Death. She’d certainly never expected to. She’d panicked. Only she and Mom were home. So she’d treated Death like the grains she brought in from the garden during the Harvest Season. She’d barreled toward him, knocked his scythe from his stunned fingers, and ran. Ran to the place she felt safest in all the world, with Death on her heels.
And Papa had opened the door.
“Why did you do it?” she asked the empty Lighthouse. “Why did you open the door?”
“Because the Lighthouse doesn’t keep light inside, little starlight. If it did, it wouldn’t be a Lighthouse.” The words were warm and comforting, like honey on toast, coming from just behind her.
Estella ducked her head, pressing her eyes into her knees. She couldn’t be hearing Papa’s voice. She hadn’t fallen asleep, right? She was certain of it. Squeezing her arms tighter around her legs, she spoke. The words had waited too long to come out already.
“I didn’t mean for it to be you.”
She snapped upright, spinning around. There was her Papa, standing there real as life.
“What?” she choked out.
He spread his arms. “I’m the Lighthouse Keeper, Estella. I keep the people of the valley safe. Do you know where the Lighthouses came from? They used to stand on shores, to keep the boats from crashing against the rocks. Now, they stand on hills and bring light for the villages against greed and hate and despair. If I would stand against these things for my valley, why wouldn’t I stand against Death for my daughter, and for you? Death had a quota, and that could not include you. It was wrong of Death to chase you.”
“But Papa, I miss you.”
“And I miss you, starlight. But I’m not sorry I did it. I’m just sorry you’re taking responsibility for my actions.”
“I’m sorry I brought him here.”
“Death was already here, in the Lighthouse. But the Lighthouse isn’t about running from consequences. It’s about standing, about chasing back the shadows with light. Chasing out fear with hope, greed with compassion, and shame with love.”
Estella chewed on her lip. She’d run from Death, and she’d been running from Papa. From the Dream Season itself. Papa saw right through her, as always.
She nodded, but fiddled with the hem of her shirt. She wasn’t ready yet to leave him. “Can I stay here for a while?”
Papa’s eyes crinkled with joy and he leaned forward like he always had when they’d planned adventures together. “I would love that. Would you like to work the light?”
A smile found its way to her lips for the first time since the Sleep Season. “Can I?”
“I sure hope so. Shining the light will help bring good dreams to the people, and with the people’s help, reduce the bad ones.”
“But I’m not the Lighthouse Keeper.”
“Anyone who wants to be can be. And maybe, keeping the Lighthouse will help you light your own path through Dream Season.”
So all through that Dream Season, Estella worked in the Lighthouse with Papa’s memory, and little by little, things changed. The days grew brighter. The food had taste and texture again. And Estella convinced the people of Solander to elect her as the next Lighthouse Keeper.
Papa loved her, and that allowed Estella to learn to love Dream Season.
From the prompt “Smoke hung so thick in the library’s rafters that she could read words in it.”
Bode stared at the words the billowing smoke had formed. The smoke stung her eyes and made them water. When she blinked, the words had gone. She glanced around at the Library, torn by indecision.
Every Librarian was taught the dangers of fire. That was why only the orbs could be used for illumination. No heat, no flame, no chance of damage to the books. Bode hadn’t even actually seen fire for over twenty years now, since she was Selected by the Library. Not since she began seeing the spirit-words. But smoke meant fire, meant that someone had been careless, and all these books would die.
Smoke also meant she had to get out, or she would die.
But “stay hidden.” That was the message. And the last time she’d disobeyed a message… Well, she wasn’t doing that again.
The smoke swirled ominously, and Bode scrambled into action. Somewhere to hide… somewhere she wouldn’t also die of smoke inhalation. But hide from what? From whom?
How could she hide when she didn’t even know the basics of the test?
Bode’s bare feet lead her to the 201020 block, and she sped into the stacks there. The smoke was less thick here—the poor 304627 block was getting the worst of it. If those books didn’t die, they’d be sick of smoke inhalation for sure, and she pitied the poor interns who would have to clean the smoke they belched out and wipe their soot-stained pages. Her chest tightened, and she pressed one long-fingered green hand to her heart. Please, please, let the books survive.
The stacks of the 201020 block were like home, and the books rustled their pages at her, like wings of startled birds, unsure where to fly. Bode crooned to them, until another swirl of smoke whisked past: Hide!
Punctuation only appeared in 0.03% of the ghost-writing. Dropping her voice to the barest whisper, she did her best to comfort the books she passed, crawling on her belly along the carpeted floor. The soot-stained carpet had eaten the sounds of the intruders, but as she pressed herself to the floor, she could feel the vibrations of footsteps, carried to her by the underflooring.
The words appeared in the grain of the wooden sign proclaiming the origin of these books: Sector 49731.67, Time Index 2301.84.
Claws scrambling for purchase on the once-lush flooring, Bode dove to her right at the gap between bookcases and pulled her tail in after her, tucking herself into a tiny ball barely taller than the words of the spines next to her. She longed to press her face into her knees, but if she did that, she wouldn’t be able to read. So she gripped all twelve of her legs until her knuckles turned pink with the pressure, and stubbornly kept all four eyes wide open.
Across the Library, books wailed and wept, screamed and cursed as they died. Block 205111. The religious books were always particularly creative in their curses, and Bode bared her teeth in a vengeful smile. Creative curses were the best kind—so long as you were observing, not receiving.
Block 410411 was pleading for help. Books of millions of languages alive and dead from all sectors and time indices exerted the effort to make their printed words sound, carried by the arches of the Library to her ears. The anger in them chilled Bode—she was glad she was a day’s walk from that block. The sound must be enough to burst organic eardrums. Still, she longed to go to them and soothe them.
Nearby pages fluttered. Her sharp triangular ears pivoted to hone in. Two bookcases from her, footsteps creaked across the floor. They paced closer, and Bode hardly dared breathe.
“I don’t see any more.” The voice was high-pitched, melodic.
“We have to get all the Librarians. Otherwise, the Library will just begin anew.” Another light, bell-like voice tinkled into being.
“Once these books are gone, Exalted Klshfi will sleep easier, without having to fight for his every stance.”
Bode’s ears flattened. So this wasn’t an accident. There wasn’t much she hated more than people in power destroying inconvenient knowledge. And yet it happened, again and again, books falling ill or in the worst cases dying, from all sectors and time indices, from the plague of willful ignorance. It was part of the reason they had Librarians.
Eight steps away. Six.
“What about the other sections?” The voice belonged to a blue-feathered biped, walking in a half crouch.
“Let them burn.” Its companion, a bolder blue in color, trailed a half-step behind, beak swiveling as it looked around.
Bode stifled her hiss. Her muscles tensed to spring, but she held herself back. The words had said to stay hidden. But the intruders had said they were looking for Librarians. Was she the only one left?
The words shimmered on the covers beside her. Bode obeyed, but her purple eyes remained fixed on the feathered bipeds. Heads swiveling, they passed by. Bode leaned forward, craning her long neck to see them turn the corner. Maybe she could find the other Librarians. Maybe she could free them.
The spirit-words didn’t forbid her. The intruders turned a corner, and Bode crawled, belly low, out of her hiding place. She froze in indecision. This was a test—she could tell by the itching of the back of her neck.
What did the Library want of her? She listened to the wailing of the dramas and tragedies, the giggles of the humor block, the detached objectivity of the logic block. She was only one Librarian, but she might be all that was left. The words had been taught to her since she came to the Library. Knowledge must survive.
The portal to the Library closed. Bode stared around her, then got to work.
Sometimes survival was the hardest choice of all. But without her, the rest of the books would die.
The Library must live on.