‘Because it’s a B, or Beta-type world, right?’
‘Yes. Which sort were you from, by the way?’
‘Oh, one of the Gammas. So there was both tech and magic. High-tech, medium magic. They had problems getting them to work together, though – anyone who was too cyborged couldn’t get magic to work.’
‘Mm,’ Irene said neutrally. ‘I’m assuming you don’t have any machine augmentation yourself.’
‘No. Good thing too. They told me it wouldn’t work here.’
‘Not exactly,’ Irene said punctiliously. ‘It’s more that no powered device can cross into or out of the Library while still functioning. Devices would work perfectly well if you could turn them off while you were traversing, and then on again once you were in here . . .’
Kai shook his head. ‘Not my gig. What’s the use of it if I’d have to keep on turning it on and off? I wasn’t really into the magic either. I was more heavy on real world stuff, like physical combat, martial arts, things like that.’
‘How did you get picked up for the Library, then?’ she asked.
Kai shrugged. ‘Well, everyone did research using online tools where I was. But from time to time I used to get jobs hunting down old books for this researcher. Some of them were, you know, not legal – and real big-time not legal too . . . So I started looking into his background, thought I might find something interesting. And I think I sort of looked a bit too hard. Because next thing I was getting a visit from some real hardline people, and they told me I needed to come and work for them.’
Kai glanced at her icily. ‘The “or” would have been bad news for me.’
Irene was silent for the time it took to walk past several doors. Eventually she said, ‘So here you are then. Are you unhappy?’
‘Not so much,’ he said, surprising her. ‘You play the game, you take the risks. It was a better offer than some people would have given me, right? One of the people teaching me here, Master Grimaldi, he said that if I’d had a family they’d never have made the offer. They’d just have warned me off some other way. So I can’t complain about that.’
‘Then what can you complain about?’
‘Five years.’ They turned a corner. ‘It’s been five fricking years I’ve been here studying. I know about the time continuity thing. It’ll have been five years since I dropped out of my own world. All the guys I used to run with, they’ll have moved on or be dead. It was that sort of place. There was this girl. She’ll have moved on to someone else. There’ll be new fashions. New styles. New tech and magic. Maybe some countries will have gone and blown themselves up. And I won’t have been there for any of it. How can I call it my own world if I keep on missing parts of it?’
‘You can’t,’ Irene answered.
‘How do you cope?’
Irene gestured at the corridor. ‘This is my world.’
Irene’s hand tightened on her book. ‘Remember I told you that my parents were both Librarians? I wasn’t born in the Library, but I might as well have been. They brought me in here when I was still a baby. They used to take me on jobs. Mother said I was the best prop she’d ever had.’ She smiled faintly at the memory. ‘Father used to tell me a bedtime story about how they smuggled a manuscript in my nappy bag.’
‘No.’ Kai came to a stop. ‘Seriously.’
Irene blinked. ‘I am serious. I used to ask him to tell it every night.’
‘They took you on missions like that?’
‘Oh.’ Irene could see what was bothering him now. ‘Not dangerous ones, just safe ones where I was useful. They left me behind on the dangerous ones. And then later on, when I needed proper teaching and social acclimatization, they put me in a boarding school. The only problem was that I had to be careful how much holiday time I spent in the Library, or it’d have thrown me out of time-sync with the world I was schooling in. They did talk about moving me between worlds to different schools so that I could have years at the Library in between, but we didn’t think it would work.’ She’d been so proud to have had them talk it over with her, to have them treat her as an adult and ask her opinion.
‘And you had . . . friends at boarding school, right?’ Kai put the question tentatively, as though she was going to bite his head off for asking it.
‘Still in contact with any of them?’
‘The time factor counts against it.’ Irene shrugged. ‘With the amount of time I had to spend in dedicated study in the Library, or in other worlds, it’s been hard . . . I did stay in contact with some of them for a while. I dropped off letters whenever I could, but ultimately it didn’t work. It was a school in Switzerland. A nice place. Very good on languages.’
They turned another corner. Ahead of them, the corridor narrowed dramatically, and began to slope upwards. The floor, walls and ceiling were all made of the same creaking boards, worn and aged. Panel windows in the left wall looked out over an empty street lit by flaring torches, where muddy wheeltracks marked the passage of traffic, but there was no sign of anyone there.
‘Straight ahead?’ Kai asked.
Irene nodded. The floor creaked under their feet as they began the climb.
‘This is like a bridge,’ Kai said.
‘Passageways between the Wings are always a little strange. I went through one once that you had to crawl through.’