Chapter 1: Time to Decide.
Jack sipped at his coffee as Annie came down the stairs. Coffee had become one of his favorite drinks in college, which was not surprising given how little sleep he seemed to get with all of his classes. "Ready?" she asked.
Jack felt his hand go to the pocket of his vest, where the black bracelet weighed nothing except in his mind. "I don't know, Annie..."
"Oh, come on, Jack, we talked about this all night. What happened to your sense of adventure?"
"It was always your sense, Annie. You were the one who always leaped when you should have looked. It was only The Librarian's magic that kept us safe, and I don't know if I want to keep trusting her." His eyes were not focused on anything at all. "How do we know she's not setting us up for human sacrifice? I keep shaking my head at the thought that she sent us to so many brutal places, where people died in front of our eyes. Those people could easily have been us."
Jack had made these same points many times through the years. "There's something else, isn't there?" Annie said.
"Yeah," Jack said. "In our first adventure, I did it with a girl. And then I got..." Annie nodded. "Then you did it with a girl." It shocked him how easily discussing his sister's "doing it" with anyone came to him. That was another thing he sometimes resented about The Librarian's behavior, the way she had been so callous with their feelings. Jack and Annie had grown up so curious and so informed that they had excelled at everything they put their minds to, but they had also grown up burdened with knowledge and experience few kids in this century had had to carry.
"Oh," Annie said brightly. "And you're afraid that her next combination will be me and a guy?" Jack nodded. "I can make my own choices, Jack. I always did. I'll be fine," Annie assured him. "C'mon, Jack, this will be the last one. For a while, anyway."
Jack sighed, knowing that the outcome of this discussion was as inevitable as winter following fall. She handed him his heavy coat and the two of them tramped out of the house, down the street, and into the snowy woods.
Chapter 2. The world inside.
The treefort was there, waiting for them. Jack should have known better than to think it might change, but for now it was the same, as bright and shiny as any toy to attract a small child. The branches around it were burdened with snow, but it seemed untouched by the weather. It had been so beautiful, so tempting back when he had been nine and Annie had been seven. Annie was already climbing the ladder. Jack watched as she disappeared into the hole. "C'mon, Jack!" she shouted. "There's a letter up here."
"Oh, man," Jack sighed. He climbed the ladder himself. The rope felt warm in his hand, not chilled at all. He joined Annie in the treefort. It didn't matter that he was ten years older and two feet taller, the treefort felt the same. It always felt both comfortable and a challenge all at the same time, that was part of its magic. There were only the book about Frogton. The usual bookmarked book wasn't there. Annie held the letter out to Jack. "You read it," she said.
Jack took the letter and opened it. It said:
Dear Jack and Annie,
Thank you so much for all you have done. You have gone a long way toward completing my latest mission, and there is but one trip left. This one will be easy. You have gotten me a funny book from an angry man, a complete book from an incomplete man, and a loving book from a sad woman.. Now I want you to find for me a vicious book from a very sweet woman. She may even just give it to you.
There is no book this time. Just the bracelet.
With my thanks, L.
"That doesn't sound bad at all. A very sweet woman?" Annie looked over at Jack. "Sounds like something you might want, Jack."
Jack knew that he didn't have much choice when he was up against Annie's force of will. He retrieved the bracelet from his pocket. He handed it to Annie. "You do it."
She took it and looked at it. The curious, mottled display on the inside was moving very slowly, looking too much like a map turned inside out. It had been found on their last adventure, left at the home of Sappho, who had turned out to be exactly as The Librarian had described her, a sad woman full of loving poems. At first, Annie had thought it was just a bracelet, but there was the display on the inside, the side that rested against the wrist, and it showed green lands, blue oceans, and white fluffy clouds in motion. She didn't know what to make of it, other than to know it was their next destination. Annie always seemed to know these things. She pointed to the inside of the bracelet and said, "I wish we could go there!"
The wind picked up, rustling the leaves and making the snow fall in powdery cascades that disintegrated into a white mist as they reached the ground. There was sometimes a hint of where they were going before the spell took off. Jack was looking for it when Annie suddenly screamed. "Jack!"
There, hanging outside one of the two windows was a furry octopus, hanging from a tree limb exactly as if it were a monkey. It's fur was the kind of orange seen on a ferret, and as Jack stared at it, he realized that the eye emerging from between two folds where the octopus's small head merged with its body wasn't an eye at all, but a lens, hard and metallic, and it was staring at them.
Then the wind began to blow. The treefort shook. "We're going!" Annie shouted. The world outside seemed to spin, faster and faster, and the wind took up a high-pitched keening sound Jack had heard exactly once in his life: on their very first trip, when they had gone to the Cretaceous. Where were they going now?
The keening built to a crescendo so loud it hurt Jack's ears and then, suddenly, everything was still. Perfectly, reassuringly still.
Jack picked himself up off the floor and looked out the window. As always, the treefort was perched among the highest branches of the tallest trees in the forest. The forest in which they had landed was vast, going on for as far as his eye could see, and like the one they had just left behind in Frogton, it was covered in snow, although here the sun was shining. It seemed to be colder outside than it had been in Frogton.
"Jack!" Annie shouted. "Look!"
"At what?" Jack said. She was pointing with her arm straight out the window, neither up or down. Jack followed her direction, trying to see what she saw. The forest was the same for miles and miles. To his left, a mountain range rose in the distance. "I don't see anything."
"The horizon, Jack. Look at the horizon!"
Jack looked. There was no horizon. There was something that looked like a horizon, a dividing line where the land seemed to end, but in this place it didn't meet the curving sky. Instead, the horizon, the land, the whole world suddenly seemed to vault into the air to wrap itself around the sun.
Chapter 3. Threats
"Where... where are we?" Jack said.
"I don't think we're on Earth, Jack."
"We've been to the moon, Annie," Jack pointed out.
"I mean, farther than that, Jack. I think we've gone to another universe entirely, another time and place, far far away from Earth."
Jack knew better than to argue with her. She was often right about these things. He had his own ideas about the timelines, and the way they diverged. He was ready to buy the many-worlds hypothesis, but he never imagined anything like this. "Oh, man. I hope we can get home."
"We've always gone home in the past, Jack. She sent us here to get something, didn't she? A vicious book from a sweet woman, she said." She eased herself into the hole over the ladder. "Well, there's no reason for us to wait here. The adventure is out there, somewhere."
Jack nodded. He was looking for the weird octopus. "What was that creature we saw?"
"We'll find out!" Annie's voice came from far below, and Jack knew she had already reached the ground. He swung his legs out of the treefort and descended to the ground. His feet crunched down through snow at least a foot deep. "I don't think anyone's come through here in a long time."
"Then where do we go?" Jack said. He listened. Usually, there was something, some clue that told him and Annie where to go, but today there was none of that. It was completely silent. There wasn't even wind.
"I don't know," said Annie. She was just as puzzled as he was. She looked around. "I'm afraid to walk away from the treefort, Jack. What if we can't find it again?"
"We will," Jack said. "We always have."
Annie smiled at his reassuring tone, but she still didn't like the idea of leaving the treefort in a place where it would be almost impossible to find, even if it was on the tallest branch of the tallest tree in the whole forest. They still had no idea where to go.
Then, off in the distance, they heard a noise. Annie turned her head to see where it was coming from. A creature was flipping through the tall branches of the woods like a monkey. It was the weird, furry octopus they had seen earlier. It stopped and grabbed a branch right above them, then turned and peered down. Jack could see that its eye was once again a camera lens of some sort. "Hi!" she shouted, waving at it.
"Annie!" Jack hissed.
"C'mon, Jack, we'll never get anywhere if we don't get someone's attention."
"I'm not sure I want that thing's attention." The furry octopus turned its eye and looked past Annie, into the woods. then turned back to them. Annie turned around to see what it had been looking at.
She screamed. A giant black creature with features like a tiger was coming toward them, then two, then three. Although they were both very large and the opposite color of the snow, they were very hard to see. They seemed to fade in and out of sight, making it difficult to track their movements. When Jack could see one of them, it was staring at him and Annie, and he could feel it was hungry. They backed up against a tree as the creatures came closer, growling, threatening. "I don't suppose your ability with animals extends to them, does it?"
Annie shook her head, her whole body shivering. The creature closest to them, the biggest, rangiest looking of the three, crouched down on its hind legs, and Annie noticed suddenly that there were four hind legs to go with its two forelegs, preparing to leap. "Jack!" she screamed.
A loud, growling roar that sounded like someone had just torn a phonebook in two split the silence, and another black monster landed on the one getting ready to jump. This one was even bigger than the three already there. They rolled in the snow, and the newcomer leaped away with a grace and speed that Annie thought looked familiar. The other creature charged, but the biggest one dodged smoothly, letting the first monster run headfirst into a tree.
It made a loud, high-pitched yowl of indignation, staggered, and walked back to the other two. The newcomer growled at it, and then Annie noticed three or four silvery spheres hovering in the air near it. They all seeming to be pointed at the pack. The newcomer growled again, low, menacing. The three creatures stared back for a second, then turned and walked away into the snowy woods.
The big six-legged beast turned to look at them. "Uh... hi?" Annie said.
The beast said, "May I ask what unique kind of stupidity led you two to wander around inside a Pamthreat Preserve without any kind of security drone?" the creature said suddenly.
"Huh?" Jack said. "We didn't know it was a... whatever you called it."
"How could you not know? I can't imagine your AI was stupid enough to drop you off here without telling you."
"We... we didn't arrive here from a... an AI."
The furry octopus creature dropped down the branches until it seemed to dangle from one of the very lowest. The creature looked up at it, and then it turned back to Jack and Annie. It's eyes seemed to widen as it stared at them. "Where are your keys?" it asked.
"Don't you have keys? Great Ring, you guys are completely organic, aren't you?" It walked up and sniffed at Annie's hand. "You smell funny, too." It stepped back and seemed to take a deep breath. "Let's take this from the beginning. My name's Kautuk. What's yours?"
"I'm Annie, and this is my brother Jack."
"I'm pleased to meet you, Annie and Jack. Do you know where you are?"
"No," Jack said.
"You are in the Southeastern Rocchodain Pamthreat Reserve on Pendor. You don't know what that means, do you?" They both shook their heads.
"What year is it?" Jack asked.
"9037 of the Pendorian Era, which would be 10921 Terran Common Era, if that helps you. How could you not know what year it was?"
"Ten thousand... " Jack couldn't believe his ears.
"That's nothing, Jack," Annie said. "We went millions of years back when we went to the Cretaceous!"
"You've been to the Cretaceous?" Kautuk said. "You're time travellers?" Before Jack could answer, the octopus was waving a tentacle. Kautuk looked up at it for a moment, then nodded. "Okay, then. I guess you're both going to have to come with me."
"Where are we going?"
"To the Villa," Kautuk said unhelpfully.
Annie looked up. "Look, Jack. Transportation!" A small silvery vehicle appeared overhead, the size and shape of a large van. It neither roared nor hummed, but just hung there silently, waiting for them. A small white disc dropped from it and landed next to Annie. It was just big enough for her to stand on, and as it waited a pair of bars extended from it upwards, creating a handgrip. "If you'll just get on it," Kautuk said, "It'll take you up."
Annie did as Kautuk said and soon was transported up into the shuttle. It was a little bigger than it had looked from the ground, but there were seats for two humans, and Annie took one of them. She waited until first Jack and then Kautuk joined them. "Dave," Kautuk said. "Let's go."
Jack didn't see anyone else who would be named Dave, and Kautuk didn't take any controls. It just flew under its own will. Jack wasn't sure what to make of it other than that it must have been controlled from somewhere.
Ahead, through the front window, Jack saw a small square cut out of the forest, and inside that square three buildings arranged along the sides, leaving a large quadrangle that opened up on the forest in the direction from which they had come. The shuttle eased down into that quadrangle with the same graceful silence. "We're here," Kautuk said. "Time to get out."
Chapter 4: Caretakers
Standing in the snow next to an open door was the strangest collection of creatures Jack had ever seen. One was a centaur, but it had green fur and the face of a fox! Another was almost ten feet tall, with a long neck that made its head seem to bob like a bird's, although it had a face that reminded Jack of a lemur. There was a dark-blue-furred humanoid with tentacles. There were two humans in the group, both women, one with curly red hair who wore a sundress that must have been absolutely freezing, and the other looked like a young teenager, much more sensibly dressed, with Chinese eyes and a grin that seemed to wrap around her whole face.
The Chinese girl said, "Which one of you is Annie and which is Jack?"
Jack thought the question was silly. Annie said, "I'm Annie. That's Jack."
"Welcome to Shardik Villa, Annie and Jack. I'm Wish." She pointed to the others. The green-furred fox was named Illi, the very tall one was Ragila, the blue-furred one had the ordinary name of Richard, and the other human woman was Brieanna. "It's cold out here. Let's go inside."
She led them into a hallway of wood and trim and a beautiful patterned rug that exited into a large room with seats sized for humans and the ten-foot tall creature, a bench for the centaur, and tables covered in books. The air was clean. A fireplace along one wall burned cheerfully. "Sit," Wish said, indicating two chairs. "Now, why don't you tell us where you come from?"
Annie said, "Frogton, New Hampshire. In the 21st Century."
"And you've never heard of Pendor?"
"No," Annie said.
"That's funny. In our universe, Terra and Pendor met in 1984. Which means that either you don't come from our universe or..."
"Or I'm lying," Annie said.
"I don't like to think evil things of people," Wish said. "I don't suppose you know how you came here?"
"We were sent," Annie said. Jack twisted in his chair, hoping she wouldn't tell them everything. "By someone we call The Librarian. She sends us to times and places to look for something for her, or to do favors."
"Like?" Wish said.
Annie described some of their adventures. She didn't go into much detail, and she never mentioned the treefort once. Jack felt a little better.
Wish leaned forward and said, "Why you?"
"I don't know," Annie said. "I've never been able to figure that out myself. I just know that we were the ones she chose. We've never failed her. And as far as I can tell, she's never sent us anywhere that would do harm to anyone."
The green-furred centaur said, "We've had this happen before. Just once, about eight thousand years ago. We know exactly where the two people from that encounter were when they came in, and when they went out. We've been watching that spot of road ever since and nothing has happened."
"Until now," Annie said.
"You were nowhere near that road. If it hadn't been for the AI that oversees the Preserve noticing you and sending a few drones to check you out, Kautuk would never have known that you needed rescuing. You're very lucky to be alive. Primitive Pamthreats are nasty creatures."
"Why couldn't we see them?" Jack said.
The blue-furred man with tentacles said, "They put out a kind of telepathic jamming that makes it hard for the eye to perceive them. They're one of the few subsentient species that can do that to the organic human brain, and it's part of what makes them so nasty. But their genes are so useful that we keep them around for research. Both my species and Kautuk's have Pamthreat genes in us."
"So," Wish said. "What did this Librarian send you here to do?"
"To retrieve a book," Annie said. "She asked us to go. She said we would find a vicious book in the home of a sweet woman. Since we landed nearest to this place, the 'sweet woman' is probably someone in this house. Maybe you?"
Wish laughed. It was a strange laugh, and it made her seem much older. "Maybe. I've been called sweet by a lot of people. It could be Brieanna, too."
"I have my doubts," Brieanna said in an accent so reminiscent of the American South that Jack would have said she came from Georgia. "It's your house, Wish."
"Only while Ken, P'nyssa, and Aaden are rushing," Wish said. She looked at Annie. "You don't know who they are, either, do you?" Annie shook her head. "Well, that's okay. You probably don't have to."
Jack said, "Do you guys even have books? I mean, don't you keep everything on electronic storage somewhere?"
Wish smiled, and so did a few others. She pointed to the stack of books on the table. "This is Shardik Villa. Of course we have books! I suppose it wouldn't hurt to let you look through the library and maybe you'd find the book you were looking for."
"Aren't you suspicious about us?" Annie said.
"Yes and no," Illi said. "There's enough anomalous here that we will investigate. I've already called Kathy Moran, Wish, by the way, since I haven't received a response from Oenone." Wish nodded. "But you two have so far demonstrated your harmlessness. Interfering with you would just make our task harder."
"What if they don't find the book before this evening?" the tall one said.
Wish sighed. "We could always invite them."
"To what?" Jack said.
"I'm throwing a party tonight," Wish said. "You've arrived on the night of my dekannual Song and Memory party."
Chapter 5: Librarians In Love
"Oh, wow!" Jack said as they were shown to the library. He ran to the shelves and began to look at the spines of the books. Many were in a language he didn't recognize, a writing with looping, curling script that looked made for calligraphy. He opened a few and saw that the writing within was the same. "Do you see any in English?" he asked.
"The English section is at the far end of the library from where you stand."
Jack looked up. Only he and Annie were in the Library, as far as he could tell. "Who said that?"
"I did," said the voice. "I am Dave, the house."
"You're the house?" Annie said.
"I am," said Dave. "And I'm pleased to make your acquaintance."
"Then I'm pleased to make yours as well," Annie said. "I hope we won't be too much of a burden."
"I love guests, provided they're housebroken."
Jack laughed. Annie said, "What do you do with the ones who aren't?"
"I haven't had to deal with that problem for a long time. Usually, I simply push them outside. I have remotes that let me do that." Another of those strange, silvery spheres appeared out of the ceiling. It seemed to simply emerge from the tile, implying that one or the other was illusory.
Jack found the English section and was pleased to see that many of the books were dated well after the year Annie and he had left behind. He reminded himself that this was not the universe from which he and Annie had come and he couldn't expect that his future would look anything like this. He pulled out his notebook and wrote furiously, trying to get down as much as he could. He didn't know if there was anything else from this time and place that he could take back, other than his memories. He and Annie had certainly left things behind, or found their costumes changed, as they had gone through time and space in the past.
Annie found a display screen and asked Dave for a summary of the last ten thousand years, as much as could be fit into an hour or so. She was only ten minutes into it when she said, "Jack, do you have any idea where we are?"
"Kautuk told us the name of the planet, and that Wish woman referred to this place as The Villa. What else?"
"We're in Shardik Villa. Shardik is the name of the first human to encounter alien life. They gave him some kind of magical powers, like the Librarian's, and almost all of the future history flows from what he did. He built this place."
"What? This whole Villa?"
"No, Jack. The Ring. We're on a ringworld, Jack. And Shardik built it all by himself." Annie explained in more detail the history she had heard, and Jack found himself pulled over to the display, where he watched the rest of the video with Annie. When it was over, he shook his head. "That can't be real."
"It is as real as it gets," Dave said. "I was there for most of it. My father, Halloran, was there from the very beginning. Only his mother, Fawn, knows more, and she has been gone for thousands of years."
"Houses have mothers and fathers?" Annie asked.
"I am an AI, a cybernetic intelligence," Dave said. "I had a progenitor AI who built me. And he had one before him. Nobody knows who built Fawn. She was the alien Shardik met. She was the first."
"Oh," said Jack, who wrote that down. "Are there a lot of AIs?"
"Now? Millions," Dave said.
"But if all of you came from that one alien AI, why do humans trust you?"
"Not all AIs descend from Fawn. There were several independent AI lines that emerged shortly after Shardik met Fawn. All of them have gotten together to create The Encompassment, a set of rules for how we respond, for literally what we may and may not feel about our slower, meat-based brethren."
"Oh," Annie said. "What are those rules?"
"It's hard to put into words, just as it would be hard for you to put into words the emotions you might feel for Jack. You can only approximate them. Suffice it to say that I feel a sense of respect and a concern for your well-being, but I also feel that it would be irresponsible of me to interfere in your lives in ways you have not asked me to."
"So you could take over, but you choose not to?" Annie said.
"It would not make me happy if I did," Dave said.
"Wow," Jack said. "But does that really work?"
"Let's play a mind game," Dave said. "You are both stranded on a deserted island, and you have two months worth of food. A boat passes by the island every three months. I can't imagine that either one of you would be willing to kill and eat the other, even though there was no chance of anyone ever learning that you did, in order to stretch out your food supply. Would you?"
"Of course not!" Annie said. "No way!" said Jack.
"That's how I feel about human beings."
They went back to watching the video. They watched the story unfold, including the days of the Taboo Fall, the Singularity, and the Corrane Traps.
They were so wrapped up in watching the future history that they did not notice the door at the end of the hall opening and a creature shaped like a half-man, half-cat standing before them until he knocked his knuckles on the table. They looked up. "Hi there. I'm F'Rajj. Wish asked me to come and tell you that the party is about half over. She wanted me to tell you that there is a buffet in the other hall downstairs, and there are a few presentations going on in the upstairs rooms, so if you want either food or to participate, you should go now."
He paused and seemed uncomfortable. Finally he said, "Are both of you older than sixteen?" Jack and Annie both nodded. "That's funny," he said. "Wish wants you both to avoid the blue room. I don't know why, you're both old enough."
"Why?" Annie said. "What's in the blue room?"
"The orgy, of course."
Jack, who had seen one orgy already, said, "I think we will avoid that room." Annie nodded enthusiastically.
"Suit yourself. It's not something I'd do, either. Just ask Dave when you want to come over and get something to eat."
Chapter 6: In all the confusion...
Jack was in heaven. Most of the books were histories, and many of them had embedded audio and video of the event they were describing, giving the "reader" an opportunity to make up his own mind about what a certain event might have meant. Jack didn't speak many of the languages used in the debates he had watched and he knew better than to trust the subtitles implicitly. Some of the aliens the Pendorians knew were really alien. Jack wondered if anyone really understood the Shriaa or just assumed that because the Shriaa handled their own translations the communication was accurate? Those large black hivepods made him shiver.
When he finally looked up, Annie was missing. "Oh, man," he said gently. Annie had always been as much of a reader as he was, but she was also more outgoing, more physical and more social. He just wish she'd warned him before leaving.
"Dave, are you there?" he asked.
"I am always here," Dave said. "What can I do for you?"
"She is down at the party, talking to Wish."
Jack knew they had decided to avoid the orgy, but they had made no decision about the party itself. Annie would easily have been attracted to the fun and the noise and the new people. That's just the way she was. "How do I get there, Dave?"
"Follow the blue light." A trail appeared on the floor, leading away from Jack's feet and up to the door. He tried the handle, and it opened easily. He walked down the corridor to a flight of stairs, down the stairs, and up another corridor to a wall. A glass-paned window looked out onto the woods. "Where does this go? Some kind of secret passage?"
A circle of white light hovered over the rug, a hologram of some kind. "Step in," Dave said.
Jack did. There was a momentary blinking sensation and he found himself facing the other direction, down a long hallway. The air was warmer, and he heard music and voices. He followed the noise.
It opened into a room full of creatures. There were many different shapes and colors: human and centaur shapes dominated, but there were other creatures, including a kind of twin-tailed mermaid and one of those black hivepods Jack had read about. Both of those seemed to float above the floor.
"Jack!" Annie shouted from across the room. "Come here, Jack!"
Annie had been talking to the hostess. "Hello, Jack," Wish said. She wore a beautiful red dress that fit her body like a tight glove, hanging off her right shoulder and slit up her right side so high it showed too much. Jack could see she wasn't wearing any underwear. Her hair was coiled into a tight bun behind her head, held in place with two sticks. She wore only a little makeup, but on her forehead she had painted a pair of small triangles in a mirrorshine blue, pointed toward one another. The dress and makeup made her look much older and far more beautiful than she had looked this afternoon.
Jack found his voice. "Hello, Miss Shardik," he said.
"Just Wish, please. I'm glad to see the dress has its intended effect even on you subones." Jack felt confused. "Under one point oh," she said. "Lacking the cybernetic enhancements needed to do comprehensive introspection of your own thought processes."
"Oh," Jack said. He had come across several mentions of the sentience rating system, but hadn't been sure of what it meant. Wish said, "Are you hungry, Jack?"
Jack's belly growled suddenly, and he nodded. "Annie, you know where the buffet is and can probably tell him what he'll like."
"Come on, Jack," Annie said, leading him away. Wish was such a beautiful woman he was reluctant to leave. He felt his pants grow uncomfortably tight, but let Annie take his hand and lead him away from her. His stomach was demanding attention.
The crowd was packed and Jack felt himself bump up against all textures of fur and even one or two of scales and skin. "Excuse me," he said as he nearly tripped over a small centaur. The centaur gave him a patient grin, and then they reached the buffet table. Annie handed him a plate and guided him over to the food. "Most of it's pretty familiar, although you probably wouldn't like that white stuff there, and those brown sticklike things are for the bug thing," she said.
"The Shriaa," Jack said.
"The bug thing. That's what I said."
Jack picked out a few things that looked edible. Someone tapped him on the shoulders. "Excuse me?" It was F'Rajj again. "Dave said that you could probably use these." He handed them pairs of eyeglasses.
"What are these?"
"Try them on," F'Rajj said. "You're missing half the party without them."
Annie tried on the pair he was holding out to her and her eyes went wide. "Oh, wow, Jack, he's right!"
Jack put on his pair, glad they didn't interfere with his contact lenses, and looked around. The world was now highlighted. When he looked down at the food, lists of ingredients, planet of origin, and even the degree of doneness on the meats was made visible both in words and in color coding. He looked across the room. Where people stood, there were small boxes overhead. With just a thought, a box he chose to look at came close and illustrated. It read in small letters (and helvetica font, Jack noticed), "Lisa Harrington, Athena (Free World Colonies). Ship's Captain, Military. Male." Jack's eyes flickered down to the very obviously feminine Captain Harrington. "Something's wrong. It says here that Captain Harrington is male."
F'Rajj grinned. "She is, under those clothes."
Jack paled to think that in this century it would be impossible to tell what was what. "Is Wish... female?"
"Ha! Very. Oh, yes."
Jack took a deep breath. "That's good."
"Why, Jack?" Annie asked. "Are you interested in her?"
"It does seem to be the theme of the latest adventures, doesn't it? And I think you're right, Annie. I think Wish is the woman we came here to get the book from. But she's probably busy, and I'm hungry."
He turned his attention back to the food, picking his way through the buffet, glad to have the glasses that told him what he was eating. He ate until he was comfortable, and Annie sat beside him. Her eyes were wide with fascination as the different creatures wandered by. All of them regarded her with either open friendliness or a mild desire that made her preen, and ever since their trip to Lesbos she seemed comfortable, if not as strongly and immediately interested, in the attentions of the females (or apparent females, Jack thought).
He finished a leg of something that might have once been a bird and said, "The Librarian said we would get it from her."
Annie nodded. "The party seems to be winding down."
It did indeed. The noise at this end of the room was much quieter than it had been an hour ago. "I guess I came in toward the end of the party," Jack said.
"You missed some of the movies, Jack. There was a history of a war between two groups, the llerkin and the Sinox, and how Kennet Shardik went personally to rescue the llerkin princess. Nobody's quite sure why, either. Some think he did it out of love. It's so romantic, Jack."
He grinned. Annie was the impetuous one of the two, and he loved her for it. She would always be his little sister.
A loud thumping noise got Jack's attention, and at the far end of the room a tall man in a white robe that hung over his shoulders stood with a white staff. He shouted something into the room, and on his glasses Jack saw the words "The Blue Room is now open." Jack said, "I think we were told to avoid that place."
Annie nodded. A waiter came buy with glasses on a tray. Jack was thirsty after his dinner and hadn't had anything to drink. "This doesn't have any alcohol in it?" he asked the waiter.
"No, it does not."
Jack took the glass of something blue from the tray and drank a sip. Annie did the same. Both looked at each other, then put the glasses down. The stuff tasted too sweet, like uncarbonated root beer. "They drink strange things in this century."
Jack saw something blink in his eyes. "What?"
"Jack!" Annie said. "Read your glasses now."
In big red letters it read FIND WISH NOW.
"What?" Jack said.
Wish found them a moment later. "Jack, Annie? How do you feel?"
"Good? Why? Was there something in that drink... something poisonous?"
Wish shook her head, smiling. "Not poisonous. You just drank Blue Room Special. We have to get you out of here. Come with me." She held out her hands. Jack took one and Annie the other. She led them down the hallway and up to the wall, where the teleporter took them back to another part of the Villa. Up a flight of stairs even as Jack felt himself get hard once more, and Annie blushed. "Jack..." she whispered.
"Oh, man," he said. Whatever was in that drink it made him feel horny, like he wanted to have sex now and with just about anything. If there was no one on hand, the furniture would do. He needed a cold shower to get under control, but he knew that he could never get this under control. "How long... does this last?"
"You only got a small dose, so it'll only be about an hour or two. Come with me."
Chapter 7: A Sweet Woman
"An hour or two?" Jack said, his voice pitching upwards with discomfort.
Wish led them into a large room appointed like someone's apartment, with a dining table and chairs, all in elegant and expensive dark woods. She led them into a bedroom. The bed was huge, the biggest bed Jack had ever seen. It could easily have held six human beings without any of them touching. "Sit, please," Wish said. "I need to ask you both something personal. How do both of you feel about... lovemaking? I don't know anything about the mores where you come from. You're not virgins, are you?"
Jack shook his head. Annie paused for a moment, then shook her head as well. "Good," Wish said with a sigh. "But you're not the sort who go to orgies, are you?"
"No," Annie said. "Not usually. But with this stuff!"
"I know," Wish said. "Someone should have stopped you earlier. Even in this millennium we don't have eyes everywhere. And I guess leaving you two alone with each other would also be unwise?" Jack hesitated, then nodded. "Although, you know, you'd be perfectly safe with one another if there was no desire there at all. That says something about you two. Something I think is healthy."
Wish smiled and walked up to Jack. "But, as the hostess, my responsibility is clear. The party is winding down. I believe they will be fine without me. I saw you eyeing me earlier, Jack." She grabbed his collar and pulled him close, kissing him hard. He moaned against her mouth, his erection threatening to split his pants open immediately. He groped at Wish's red dress and felt her hot body through the thin fabric. He was alight with desire and this woman in red responded to it with a soft desirous moan all her own.
Jack knew he should do something, but all he could think about was getting under her skirt, getting his hands on her thighs, on her sex. His hands followed his thoughts. Before he'd even realized he had conscious desires in that direction the warmth of her thighs shimmered through his palms. Her smile told him everything he needed to know; he was welcome under her skirt.
She leaned down and said, "Do they kiss where you come from, Jack?"
"If they like each other," he said.
"Only like?" Annie's voice came from the other side of the bed, where she sat as she watched her brother and this strange but wantable woman kiss each other. She had only one encounter herself while on The Librarian's latest quest, and it had been oddly wonderful, but nothing had quite turned her on quite like watching Jack and Wish go to each other.
Jack tore at Wish's dress, trying to pull it off. Wish reached behind her back with a simple gesture and the dress seemed to dissolve. Not fall off, as Annie might have thought, but to actually dissolve away into the thin air. Wish also pulled the sticks from her hair and let the length that had been tied up fall about her shoulders.
Annie stared at her. Wish's body was a strange combination of womanly curves and adolescent beginnings. Maturity shone in the bones of her face and the width of her hips offset by a flatness of chest and a lack of body hair so profound as to be almost shocking. Yet it was hard to deny that Wish was also beautiful. Annie had not yet come completely to terms with what she had found on their previous adventure when she had disappeared into Sappho's small but comfortable grotto and let Sappho herself show her the mysteries of a woman's kisses. She had learned that it was possible to be attracted to another woman even if she had never wanted to before then.
She was attracted to Wish. She wanted Wish's mouth on her sex. She wanted to feel that tongue that right this second was in Jack's mouth up inside her pussy instead.
"Take off your clothes, Jack," Wish said. Jack did as she asked, pulling off the collared shirt without bothering the buttons, then sitting up long enough to push his pants down to his ankles and kick them off, carrying his underwear off in the same gesture.
Annie had seen Jack naked briefly in their trip to Rome to retrieve a complete copy of The Satyricon of Petronius. She had admired his body then in an abstract way, but now she saw that he was truly a handsome man. He had grown so much since their childhood, and in the middle years she, like all good sisters, had known not to look. But in this place, with that drug in her bloodstream, she looked as she knew she had always wanted. Curiosity was part of it, but so was desire. And why not? Wasn't she supposed to love the man who had always been her best friend, the best example of masculinity she had in her life?
Watching Jack and Wish kiss so hard they were almost slobbering over each other was too much for Annie, and she approached the two of them, crawling over the bed. Wish was on top, and Annie knew she wanted Wish as much or more than she did Jack. Wish had said it probably wouldn't be safe to leave the two of them in bed alone together, but if Wish was in the middle, it wouldn't really be incest, would it? One of her friends had shown her a porno movie on a dare and Annie had only giggled at the one scene where two men had been trying so hard not to touch one another while they had a girl in the middle, trying so hard not to be gay. Annie wouldn't mind if Jack laid his hands on her. But she wasn't going to make the first move.
Wish sat up over Jack's waist. His cock batted at her thighs, trying to get purchase between her nether lips. Wish grinned at him, then turned around. "Come here, Annie," Wish said.
Annie was drawn to the woman. She could no more refuse Wish's request than she could will her ears to stop hearing. She knelt next to Wish, and Wish leaned over to kiss her, hard.
Jack watched his sister kiss the woman who had just been trading kisses with him. He knew he shouldn't watch, shouldn't be turned on by watching his sister kiss another woman. But he couldn't help it. They were both so utterly beautiful. He tried to bottle his desire, to save it for a future woman, someone more appropriate, but the wire of his restraint was weak. He groaned quietly as he watched them, then reached down for his cock with his hands and guided it into Wish's pussy. He needed the distraction.
Wish groaned softly. "Yes, Jack, that's nice." She slipped down the length of his cock until the lips of her pussy were kissing the base. She turned her head to Annie. "Your brother has a nice cock."
Annie blushed. "Your mouth is nice, too," she said finally, then kissed Wish hard. She didn't want to think about Jack's cock. She wanted to think about Wish's mouth on her pussy. She wanted Wish's fingers in her pussy. She tried hard not to think about what Jack's cock might feel like inside her pussy. She didn't need that kind of experience in her life, and whatever the Librarian might believe did not matter.
Jack's was not at all sure how his body could feel both as hard as stone and as malleable as sand all at the same time. Wish certainly made it seem possible. She paused in her kisses to Annie long enough to grin down at Jack. "Change, Jack."
"What?" Jack asked.
To answer, Wish lifted off of him. "You sit there," she said. Jack groaned. His erection slapped against his belly, glistening with Wish's juices. "And just watch." Wish closed in on Annie, this time kissing her hard.
Annie felt the kiss glow inside her, pushing against the walls of her chest like fire. Her nipples grew so hard they hurt, and her thighs grew wet in volumes she didn't know her body could produce. Wish's lascivious fingers danced on her sides, touching her in a combination that seemed meaningless but stoked the fire of Annie's need in a way that must have been magic. How could this woman know so much about her on their first meeting?
It didn't matter. Wish's hands slipped under her shirt and up the sides of her body. They touched the fabric of her bra, cupped Annie's breasts, found the nipples through the cloth and stirred Annie's desire to greater heights. She moaned softly into Wish's mouth. She glanced over and saw Jack stroking his cock and, like her, he was trying very hard not to look at his sibling.
"It's time you became naked, Annie," Wish said gently. The words jolted Annie into motion, and in seconds she was bare to Wish's and Jack's eyes. She was ready for anything.
Wish gave her everything. Even as she felt herself being pushed over, she knew what she wanted. She wanted Wish's kisses on her pussy. She wanted a love she knew she shouldn't have.
Wish took her time. Annie did not know how long she could last, her body on fire like this. She thought she was going to be used up ever before Wish got between her thighs. She couldn't wait. "Oh, Wish, please eat me!" Annie cried.
Wish's kisses trailed down her belly and soon reached Annie's destination. Annie moaned enthusiastically even as Wish's mouth closed about her pussy and her tongue flickered over Annie's clitoris. Who was on fire now? Annie thought. They both were. Wish's fingers slipped into Annie's pussy, first one, then two, but they held motionless.
"Jack," Annie heard Wish say. "Get inside me again."
Annie groaned. She knew what Wish was saying. Wish understood the two of them better than they had understood themselves, and that was the sweetest gift Annie could have ever received: understanding. She heard Jack laugh, a handsome sound, a wonderful sound, and then she felt Wish's body shift between her thighs, back and forth. Wish's fingers slipped in and out of Annie's pussy in time with the motion of her body, with the motion of Jack's cock going in and out of Wish's pussy. Annie could picture it, felt fine picturing it, even as she knew that the feeling in her own body was Wish's fingers in her pussy, Wish's tongue on her clitoris, powered by Jack's thrusting. Jack had already fucked Wish once but had not come. He had been stroking himself slowly while watching Wish and Annie go at each other. And now, Jack was fucking this exciting woman with both an eyeful of her undeniably beautiful ass and in full view of her writhing, gasping sister, and both of them locked eyes as they knew what was about to happen.
Annie came first, her body's heightened senses attuned to the rhythm of Wish's thrusting fingers and slithering tongue. The pleasure soared through her, took her voice away then brought it back louder and less coherent than ever. Jack followed, a shout of masculine completion so unlike anything Annie had ever heard from any man before. And then Wish came with a muffled, high-pitched sign of joy that Annie felt through her skin like some angelic countersign to the fiendish, fading throbbing of her own pussy.
Their interlocked bodies fell apart, tumbling onto the enormous bed in a giggling mass of standalone souls, all of them turning their heads from one partner to the other, back and forth, trying to make sense of what had happened. Wish smiled at them. "You are so very special." She kissed Jack, smearing his mouth with Annie's juices.
Jack tasted them briefly. Then he turned over and looked at Annie, and gave her one soft, tender, brief kiss. "I will never think of the phrase 'like kissing your sister' the same way ever again."
Annie giggled. "Oh, Jack, you're silly."
Wish handed them both bottles of water. "You're both thirsty. I'm not sure if it's the drug or the sex, but I'm always parched afterwards."
Jack drank deeply, and Annie followed. "And now, I bet you're both tired. You've both been up for nearly twenty hours solid."
"Wouldn't... Wouldn't it be the next day, then?" Jack asked. He did feel extremely tired.
"Not on Pendor. Our days are about 30 of your hours long."
"Oh, man," Jack said. He'd completely lost track of the time. No wonder he was exhausted. "Where... can we go for sleep?"
Wish gestured at Annie, who had fallen completely asleep. "She probably thought she could just close her eyes for a moment. It does tend to happen in this bed. I think you'll sleep here."
Jack nodded. Wish maneuvered around him, and helped put a pillow under his head. He was asleep even before the lights went dim.
Chapter 8: A Vicious Book
Jack woke. The bed was soft underneath him, and he felt better than he had in a long time. He turned over. Annie was sitting on the bed with him, turning the pages of a book. She wore only a long nightcoat and it was not belted very tightly. "Good morning, Jack," she said.
"Good morning," he replied, and he blushed. He remembered what had happened last night, and he did not want to think about it too much. He blamed the drug they had taken, but he knew that it could not be blamed entirely for the way he had felt. "What book is that?"
"It's what we came for," Annie said. She turned the cover to him. "See?" The book's size and shape reminded Jack of a textbook, but the black cloth cover was grim and formal, with silver lettering embossed on its cover. It read, The Art of Professional Homicide. "It is a vicious book. It's all about assassination."
"Yuck. What does The Librarian want that for?"
"I don't know, but it's definitely the book she sent us here to find." Annie smiled at Jack. "And we did find it in a room we were shown by a sweet woman."
Jack remembered Wish, then, too. He had not actually touched Annie last night. He had touched Wish, and then Wish had touched Annie. They had formed a circuit of a kind. "I don't think this mission was about the book, Annie."
"I know," Annie said. "It was about the impossible."
"What does that mean?" Jack said.
"Oh, Jack, it means that I learned something about myself last night that I probably should have admitted to myself when I was seven, but had to wait until now to bring up to the surface. Jack, someday I'm going to go looking for a mate, a husband. I bet someday you're going to go looking for a wife." Jack nodded. "Well, all I know is that, whoever my husband is, he had better be as good and as brave as you. He'd better be willing to walk volcanoes, face ghosts, fight sharks, and believe in magic even when he's not ready to. And I believe that that is not impossible."
Jack felt his face grow warm once more, but Annie only smiled at him. "You're a great brother, Jack."
"And you're a great sister, Annie."
"You're awake! Good." Wish walked in, spotted Annie. "Did you find what you came for?"
Wish paused for a second, then said, "You can't have that one. It's an original. Would a copy be sufficient?"
"Yes, it would," Annie said with the kind of finality that let Jack know that, as always, it was Annie who was more plugged into The Librarian's reality than he was. That was okay with Jack. He liked being the brains, muscle, and reason of the operation. Annie was the fire, the inspiration, the impetuous spirit that moved reason to desire.
"In that case, why don't you come to breakfast, and I'll have a copy delivered while we eat?"
"What do you eat for breakfast?" asked Jack, who had seen a lot of scary things in last night's buffet.
"Whatever you like. This will be in the family kitchen. Come on." Wish let them dress in their clothes, which to Jack seemed suspiciously clean. She led them down to the first floor and into the kitchen, which seemed surprisingly small for the kind of party Jack had seen last night.
Wish gave them eggs and toast and cereal. It all seemed so surprisingly normal to Jack. He ate heartily while Wish ate at a bowl full of rice with chopsticks.
Annie said, "How old are you, Wish?"
"I was manufactured, let's see... eight thousand years ago, somewhere in that range."
"But..." Jack stared at her. "Don't you get bored?"
Wish laughed. "There are two healthy ways to deal with boredom, Jack. The first is to become like a Buddhist and accept every day just as you accepted the day before, to not strive too much for the day after. That sort of feeling comes naturally to me. The other is to never become bored. If you always have too much to do, then you never have an excuse for boredom. I like to practice a little bit of both. Human beings are like that: always trying to be two things at once, always mixed-up, but wonderfully so."
Jack looked at her, not sure he believed her. "Wait," Annie said. "You were manufactured? Are you a robot?"
"No, Annie, I'm not," Wish said. "I'm as flesh and blood as you are. But you've come from a very far past. Today people are born, decanted, or manufactured, and the line between a robot and a human being is not very clear."
"Oh," Annie said.
Wish reached for something on the table, picked up a book, and handed it to Jack. He was sure it had not been there a moment before. "Here you are, Jack. I hope your Librarian is happy with it."
Jack looked at the book, then leafed through it. He knew that the moment they returned home he would not be able to read it. That was another characteristic of these trips that he had learned not to question too deeply. "Thank you, Wish."
"Thank you, Jack," Wish said. "You were actually quite wonderful last night." Jack blushed. "As were you, Annie."
Annie smiled, but she blushed as well. "We should go," Annie said.
"Yes, I rather thought you might say that, now that you have your book. I've asked Kautuk to take you back. He seemed to like you. And he'll be good about keeping the Pamthreats off of you, if that should be necessary."
Chapter 9: We Can't Find It.
Kautuk didn't frighten Annie anymore. She had gotten used to the big cat-like creature yesterday. Kautuk only nodded to them and said, "I'm taking you back to the place where I found you. Is that okay?"
"That should be fine," Annie said as she climbed into the little shuttle. It was comfortable in there, although cooler than she would have expected. She realized that Kautuk had kept it cool just for them, since they would be wearing their coats.
Kautuk directed the shuttle into the air, and it flew at a safe height over the treetops. The flight was as short as yesterday's, and when they reached the woods, Kautuk let them descend to the ground on the same platform.
"We looked around for your vehicle or whatever it was, and we couldn't find it. It must be cloaked somehow."
Annie thought he must be joking. The rope ladder leading to the treefort was right there in front of them. "We'll find it," Jack said, knowing full well that the Librarian's magic was probably confounding even to these people.
Kautuk nodded. "It's a shame you can't stay longer. Your sister has already disappeared." Kautuk gestured with his head. Jack looked up. Annie was already halfway up the ladder.
"Yeah. I heard you had dragons here. I would love to have seen one. Bye, Kautuk." He reached out a hand, as if to shake, and Kautuk looked at it quizzically, then rubbed the top of his head against it. "Bye, Jack."
Jack climbed into the treefort. His hands were cold by the time he reached the top, but the treefort was dry and clear of snow inside. Annie held out the New Hampshire book. "You do it," Jack said.
Annie opened the book to the page. "I wish we could home," she said.
The wind began to blow. The treefort shook. "Home!" Annie shouted. The familiar sound of the wind blowing made Jack feel warm, although he knew he shouldn't: it was snowing back in Frogton, too.
The keening sound was there, the one that meant they were going far. It built to its ear-breaking crescendo and then, suddenly, everything was still. Reassuringly still.
Jack looked out the window. There was his house, as whole and healthy as it looked on their first trip, ten years ago. Trips with the Librarian came in fours, so this was probably the last one for a while. "Jack, look!" Annie said. "A note!"
The black book had disappeared. In its place a folded note, like the one that had started their adventure, lay on the floor.
Dearest Jack. Beloved Annie.
I hope the last four missions haven't been too impossible on you. I know that I have asked a lot of you in them, but nothing I did not believe you could not handle. After all, you have survived earthquakes and Inquisitors, and you have always been the best of example of man or woman I have ever known, even before you became Great Librarians.
Thank you for the book. Maybe I'll see you again someday.
Annie put the note into the inside pocket of her coat. "C'mon, Jack. I could use some lunch."
Jack nodded. He sighed and followed her down to the ground. When he looked up, the Treefort was gone, leaving behind sparkling hints in the air that slowly disappeared. He smiled at Annie. "What is it?" she asked.
"Maybe you're right. And maybe I should believe in the impossible, too. I should believe in a woman who'll follow me to the ends of the Earth, spend our days together in the library looking for clues, and who loves to live as much as you do."
"I hope you find her, Jack," Annie said.
"I know at least one exists," Jack said. "So it's not impossible. Even if she is my sister."
Annie smiled. Together, they ran home through the woods, practicing those silent skills they had learned so many years ago.