Beth felt the smooth metal of the First Galactic Library Key in her palm and fought back the urge to squeal in joy.
It wasn’t magic. There were plenty of stories where magic was impossible. The Measureless Stars novels occasionally dipped into “science so advanced that it was effectively magic” but there were always gadgets involved and specific rules about what they could do. Summoning one of the lost keys to the First Galactic Library would have required some kind of micro-sized matter transmission device, which Beth didn’t happen to have laying around.
What she did have was an ability she hadn’t been able to practice.
Her father had spoken of being able to conjure things from stories. He’d basically done that when he’d called Lagressa to the physical world. Beth had wanted to try the same thing, to summon other characters into real life or call forth fantastic objects from the books she read but there’d been an obvious problem with doing that.
As long as the fold that took her to the Pact Knight Chronicles was still open, they would be looking for her and any additional tampering with the Unread would draw their attention like a flame. Once the Burners found her though, all bets were off.
Which didn’t mean there weren’t still limits to contend with. Her father had been coy about describing what she could and couldn’t do, citing the fact that each person interacted with the Unread differently. From what he was willing to talk about though (and the topic he avoided), Beth had a basic idea of what was possible.
Her father had taken her copy of the Pact Knight novel she was reading and used that to summon Lagressa. He’d needed a tangible copy of the book to make a deep enough connection to it conjure anything.
That was why Beth had taken to carrying a paperback copy of the “Century Walk” with her. She’d decided on it being the best getaway spot from the books she had access to and felt a connection to.
Strangely, she didn’t have a copy of the book on her anymore. Perhaps, she thought, because she was effectively inside it already. That train of logic is what had lead to her think she could summon things from the narrative to aid her. She didn’t need to be carrying the book when the book was carrying her.
Beyond contact with the book though, there was another important limitation. Though her father hadn’t come out and said it, she noticed in the stories he told that he never conjured anything that wasn’t a part of the novel’s narrative.
For him that meant only things that existed in reality, since his preferred genre was history books. For Beth’s great grandmother it had meant blessed artifacts, since she walked in the pages of the lives of Saints.
Beth wasn’t sure what that meant for her. Her heart was held by SciFi and Fantasy and those allowed for things that not only had never existed, but could never exist. At least not in the physical world that Beth called home.
So she’d started small. With nothing more than a simple key.
“The Transcription Code checks out, this really is a key to the First Galactic Library!” the first sentry to speak to her said.
“Let me double check that,” the second sentry said.
Beth watched the sentry run a finger along the intricate tracework that decorated the key. Various tiny lights appeared on its surface, blinking in slow pulses and ones that were faster than the eye could follow.
While the sentries didn’t possess particular humaniform bodies, or articulated faces, their capacity for expression was surprisingly complex. Beth remembered that their memories and personalities were willingly made copies generated from the people who originally guarded the Galactic Libraries. What began as soulless metal guardians became aware and enlightened people, able to spend millenia caring for the great working collecting and cataloging the knowledge of the galaxy. Albeit within certain limits.
“I’ll need that back,” Beth said. “And somewhere for my friend to recover.”
“Let me check it one more time,” the second sentry said.
“While he’s doing that I’ll take you to a reading chamber,” the first sentry said.
“And my friend?”
The first sentry reconfigured herself from a tall body with arms atop a central wheel to something closer to a three wheeled chariot. With two pairs arms, the sentry carefully picked Lagressa and lay her on the chariot’s floor.
“Follow me,” the sentry said and began wheeling away.
The reading rooms that were spoken of in the novel were great multi-monitor research chambers where academics could have “a thousand tome available at a glance”. This translated into a thousand monitors arrayed around the walls and ceiling. Since the “Century Walk” was written before the Internet became commonplace, Beth couldn’t blame the author for the horrible user interface design when the computers they were familiar with had screens that could only show a single page of text at a time.
“We have a problem,” a new sentry said. This one bore a different color scheme than the grey and gold of the first two. It was larger and colored white and blue. “Someone is trying to initiate a Grand Stellar Warp on the planet surface.”
“The Inhibitor Fields are failing?” the Grey sentry asked.
“No, but a surprising amount of strain is being placed on them, and all refusal codes are being ignored,” the Blue sentry said.
“That’s the Reilians,” Beth said. “They don’t take incursions into their dominion well at all.”
“You know them? Why are they trying to open a Grand Stellar Warp?” the Blue sentry asked.
“They do that when they want to bring a serious military force,” Beth said. “Usually that only happens after they declare war though.”
“They did send a signal but we haven’t translated it yet,” the Blue sentry said.
“You might want to work on that,” Beth said. “If they’re declaring war, they’ll have included how long you have to prepare and what state of annihilation they intend to inflict on the world.”
The oncoming war didn’t worry Beth, it was the aftermath that troubled her. If war came, it would throw off the narrative which would destroy the Unread fold and return her to the physical world.
The problem was that’s where the Burners were waiting for her.