Isaac pushed open the heavy wooden door, letting it fall shut behind him as he entered. The thick fog of incense in the reception area set him coughing. Squinting through the haze, he approached the front counter, where a young woman with a pixie cut sat gazing blankly at a burning incense coil. She didn’t notice him until he rang the bell on the counter, at which point she jumped and stood bolt upright.
“Yes, hello, welcome to Jesenick’s Books!” She relaxed, her shoulders dropping. “How may I help you, sir?”
“Good day, miss. I’m sorry to have startled you, but I’m searching for a text most rare and elusive, and I was wondering if you might have it in stock here.”
“Oh, you’re looking to start a book chain? I’d be happy to help you, sir.” She retrieved a large three-ring binder from beneath the counter and opened it. “Is the book bounded or unbounded?”
She nodded and flipped to a divider near the middle. “Title and author?”
“I believe it’s titled ‘A Field Guide to Emergent Algorithmics’, though the author escapes me.”
She turned a few pages and traced downward along one with her finger. After a moment, her eyes lit up.
“Ooh, you’re in luck, sir! A book chain’s already been started with that one.” Her face flushed slightly. “And by a real charmer, at that.”
“I beg your pardon, miss, but I must confess to an unfamiliarity with this concept of book chains. I’m a newcomer to this territory and thus am relatively ignorant with relation to its local practices, you understand. Do you mean someone’s already taken your copy of it?”
“You’ve never joined in on a book chain before? I daresay you’ve been missing out, sir.” She resumed her seat and set the binder down on the counter. “It’s simple, really. A person checks out a book from us and leaves their contact information. When a second person comes in wanting to check out the same book, we give them the first person’s contact information. The second then meets up with the first and trades them a comparable book in exchange for the title they want, assuming of course that the first has finished reading it. After that trade-off, the first returns to us and gives us the book they received in the trade—again, after they’ve finished reading it—along with the contact information of the second for future patrons.”
“I see.” He nodded, his armed folded. “If you’ll forgive a flare-up of idle curiosity, what prompted the development of this book bartering system?”
“You’re already forgiven, sir. I appreciate the company on a slow night like this.” She smiled. “The book chain was the brain child of the store owner, Mr. Jesenick. He wanted to restructure the lending process so that there wasn’t so much of a middleman, and so that fans of a particular author or genre could meet others who enjoyed the same kinds of literature. It’s been a huge hit, so much so that all of the franchise bookstores in town had to close up shop.”
“That’s quite an impressive accomplishment!”
“He was really happy about it, for sure. In fact, every time one of the big-name competitors in the area went out of business, he’d dash through the store, clicking his heels and laughing up a storm. It was beyond silly, but it made the place a little livelier, so I didn’t mind.” She took a deep breath of the incense, then sighed, staring off into the distance. “He’s not shown up at the shop at all lately, though. I hope he’s OK.”
“If he’s half an energetic and sharp-witted fellow as you’ve illustrated him being, then in all likelihood there’s no cause for anxiety over his well-being. In any case, my recollection is that you’ve the contact information of the individual presently holding the book I need. I’d be obliged if you’d relay it to me and likewise point me in the right direction, so to say.”
“Oh, I see.” Her smile faded. “My apologies, sir. I don’t mean to delay you.” She re-read the entry in the binder, then began scribbling something on an index card. “The person who started the chain only left this address, which I think is the Absorber Department branch for this area? It makes sense, I guess, since she was an absorber... but still, talk about being private.” She finished writing and handed the card to him. “You can get there by taking a left onto the entry ramp up the street, going east on the interstate for a few miles, then driving along Exit 20 for a bit. It should be on the right.”
He thanked her and left.
* * * * * *
Isaac stared in confusion at the squat, square brick building in front of him. Was this the right address? It scarcely looked the part of a government office—if anything, it resembled a rest stop. At the same time, it was the first man-made structure he’d seen in the miles and miles of dense forest off of Exit 20. He’d made sure to follow the bookstore clerk’s directions to the letter, for that matter, so this had to be the place.
He walked toward it. The building was a single storey tall, its walls a featureless pattern of dusty red masonry save for an unadorned metal door and a payphone booth. Each of the four corners of the structure had an accompanying streetlight, the lamp-bearing arms facing outward, cutting a flattened circle of pale orange light out of the surrounding dusk.
Uneven patches of rust coated the door. A cursory twist of the handle revealed it to be unlocked. He slowly opened it, his apprehension rising at the unlit interior. Florescent lights set into the ceiling of the room flickered on abruptly. Reassured by the illumination, he stepped inside, closing the door behind him.
He walked to the center of the dirty concrete room. Aside from himself and the light fixtures, the building was completely empty. He folded his arms and shut his eyes in thought. The clerk must’ve made some error in relaying the directions to him—an errant exit number, perhaps? Regardless of the specifics, there was no helping the matter; he’d have to go back to the bookstore and ask again.
As he headed toward the door, the lights sputtered and gave out. For an instant, in the still darkness, he had a distinct sensation of falling. The impression quickly passed, the lights returning to life in its place.
“Good evening to you, stranger!”
He turned to face the voice. A spherical mass of translucent blue gel several feet in diameter stood before him. It jiggled excitedly, then stopped as though remembering something.
“Oh, but where are my manners? Just give me a second here, if you’ll excuse me.” It twisted and morphed itself into a loosely humanoid form. “There we are! How do you do, good sir?” It held out a tentacular arm. Isaac shook it firmly.
“I’m doing reasonably well overall, thank you for asking, but I must admit that I’m lost. One event’s unfolded into another; as circumstance would have it, a drowsy store clerk has misdirected me.” He gave an exaggerated shrug. “Speaking of which, are you by any chance knowledgeable as to the location of the local Absorber Department? I’m searching for a rare book, and the person in possession of it can apparently be reached there.”
“Oho, a book chainer, eh? You’re less lost than you think, since you’re standing in the department’s main office right now.” It gestured around itself. The bare concrete room had transformed into a tastefully furnished lounge, complete with tiled flooring and a fountain. An elevator was visible in the far wall.
“Ah, how fortunate! To think I’d all but resigned myself to backtracking along the interstate.” At a sudden realization, his expression darkened. “Yet, I’ve no way to determine who in specific here has the book, as the person failed to leave a name or any other personal identification when checking it out. What was that librarian thinking, letting them provide an arbitrary address and nothing more?”
“Never to worry, never to worry!” The blob waved an arm dismissively. “There’s only one person here who could possibly have it. Us full-timers here at the department can’t even hold most books, since those dry, papery pages fall apart from our moisture. However, we do have a flesher like yourself on loan from another branch. She’s surely the one who has it... even if she’s not actually named Shirley.” It giggled to itself. “Anywho, I’ll take you up to her now.”
They walked over to the elevator. The figure pushed the up button, then, after a second, struck itself on the forehead.
“I forgot to introduce myself! I’m so absentminded today, sheesh. I’m Walter Ralph.” It bowed slightly. “What’s your name, my good man?”
“My name is Isaac. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“Oh, but the pleasure is mine. You wouldn’t go stealing it from me, now would you?” It elbowed him goodnaturedly.
With a soft chime, the elevator doors slid open. They entered. After a moment, the doors closed, and the elevator began ascending automatically.
Following a fruitless trip to the unknown woman’s empty office, Isaac sat on a bench set against the wall while Walter consulted with a dispatch officer. He scanned his surroundings. The walls and ceiling of the upper floor, which appeared to be the building’s ground floor, were constructed entirely out of thick glass. A few other absorbers were visible, some working at desks, others passing in and out of side offices.
Outside, the sun shone brightly against a cloudless, vibrant blue sky. Five cement roads, all stretching out toward the horizon, were spaced with radial symmetry around the building. Each was tinted a different color: red, yellow, green, blue, black. Shrubs dotted the grassy landscape between the roads.
Walter exited the dispatch office, first rolling toward the bench as a sphere then shifting rapidly back into humanoid form with a loud pop that snapped Isaac out of his observational reverie.
“OK, Mr. Isaac, I’ve got good news, bad news, and convenient news alike for you.”
“Let’s unburden ourselves of the bad news before anything else.”
“Well, the bad news is that the flesher with your book isn’t here anymore.” It rubbed the back of its not-head sheepishly. “Apparently, the brass thought she was too much of a ‘loose cannon’ to keep around here. Not really the paperwork type, that one. So she’s back at the T.W. branch now.”
“I’m afraid I’ve not the faintest clue where that is.” He folded his arms, his face creased with concentration. “This presents a problem.”
“Relax, relax! That ties right into the good news, which is that it’s pretty much a straight shot from here to there. You see that black road?” It pointed one of its stubbed arms toward the discolored concrete strip. “Just follow along there. You’ll pass by this big white cactus once you’re almost there. Can’t miss it.”
“Straightforward as those instructions are, I’m doubtful that I could venture that far on foot. That is, it must be a fair distance away, considering the utter lack of any cacti within my line of sight. Furthermore, since my car is back at the entrance—and it’s much too bulky a thing to fit through the front door, without a doubt—I don’t have any means of transportation at my disposal.”
“Au contraire! That’s the convenient news I mentioned. Since you left your keys in your vehicle, some gent in administration took the liberty of getting a valet to park it in the lot out front.” “They did?” He turned and looked. His car sat alone in the parking lot. “Why, that was remarkably thoughtful of them! If you would, please forward my gratitude to them when you’ve the opportunity.” He stood. “With that said, I’d best depart immediately.”
“I guess I’ll be seeing you later, then. Have a pleasant drive!”
As the car sped off down the road, Walter waved and stood watching, then was struck abruptly by a realization.
“Wait, shoot! I forgot to tell him her name!”
* * * * * *
A few dozen miles in, the black road sank down into an underground tunnel. After over an hour of gradual descent, during which the lamp-studded cement walls narrowed steadily, the passage opened up into a cave system. Here, the previously straight roadway began to curve and meander, the dim florescent lamps now embedded in pairs along its border.
Isaac turned a bend around a dense cluster of stalagmites jutting out from the wall, entering another cavern far larger than the first. A colorless saguaro hundreds of feet tall dominated the chamber, its arms brushing the rocky ceiling far above. The road terminated at its base, forcing him to stop. He exited his vehicle and gazed up at the monochromatic titan for a moment, noting the faint white glow it exuded, then circled around it in search of the next segment of road.
He completed the circuit to no avail, returning to his car only to discover a young woman lying atop its hood and posing like a model. Her shirt, shoes, and skin were a ghostly, nearly luminescent white, her long skirt, long hair, and eyes jet-black. She smiled a smug, eerie smile at him.
“Looking for something?”
“As it so happens, miss, I am. Would you be able to direct me toward the Absorber Department that’s located somewhere hereabouts? It should be the ‘T.W. branch’, if that helps your recollection at all.” Something occurred to him. “Or, perhaps, did you by any chance check out a book on emergent algorithmics recently?”
“My, how polite. I don’t know anything about these books or departments. You’ll have to figure it out all by yourself, looks like. Too bad.” She sat upright, crossed her legs, and stared unblinkingly at him, her smile undiminished.
“Barring anything about the department proper, then, could you instead enlighten me about this cave system? Is there an exit nearby, or alternatively some side road not directly connected to the one by which I arrived?”
He resumed his search. Several minutes of ineffectual wandering later, he stopped by the base of the cactus, scratching his head.
“Not just yet, though I’m quite decidedly lost.”
“Here’s a hint: ‘People often appear one way, but are hollow on the inside.’ ” She hopped down from the car’s hood. “Good luck, interloper. I’ll see you again very soon.”
“Ah, that phrase…. Do you mean, then, that I need to—” He fell silent. The young woman had vanished.
He pondered for a moment further, then walked over to the intersection between the road and the cactus. He prodded the plant’s leathery skin, then stepped back and gave it an exploratory kick. His foot punched through it easily, revealing a cavity within. Following several additional kicks, he grabbed the loose curtain of skin and tore it away.
At the far end of the small, oblong cavity was an unmarked white door. He opened it and walked through.
Isaac stood in what resembled a hospital corridor. The walls and floor were an antiseptic white, the ceiling drop tiles interspaced with clean, modern light fixtures. A series of doors identical to the one in the cactus lined both walls, with a single door ensconced in the far end of the hallway.
He tried the first door on his right, which opened into the reception area of Jesenick’s Bookstore. A cloud of incense smoke poured into the hallway.
“Oh, hello again, sir!” The woman at the counter perked up. “You’re back so soon. Are you having trouble finding the person with your book?”
“Regrettably, I’ve indeed been struggling with getting in touch with them, though I believe I’m presently hot on their trail, as the expression goes. Pardon my barging in again so suddenly—I’ll be on my way.”
“Wait! Um...” The clerk fidgeted, her eyes downcast. “Can I… go with you?”
“You want to accompany me? I don’t mind if you do, but aren’t you currently at work? With the economy being in such a stagnant state, I suspect you’d find yourself in rather dire straits were you to lose your job.”
“The store just closed for the night, in fact. I was about to lock up and head home right as you stopped in. I’d really, really appreciate it if you’d let me join you, if it’s OK with you.”
“As I said before, I don’t mind at all, though I’m admittedly curious as to why.”
“It’s nothing, really, just that I...” Her face flushed. “Well, I want to meet up with the person who checked out your book.”
“Oh? Is that right?”
“She was so pretty and charming, you know? And she did say that I could stop by that address myself to see her sometime if I wanted….” She averted her eyes, her ears bright red.
“In that case, let’s not dally any further.” He stepped to the side, allowing her to cross through into the hallway, then shut the door. “By the way, I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced to one another. My name is Isaac.” He held out a hand, which she shook.
“I’m Samantha. It’s nice to meet you, Isaac.” She smiled, then took in her new surroundings. “Oh, you used the delivery entrance. But if you’ve come out all this way to the Waypoint Warehouse trying to find her, that must mean she wasn’t at the local Absorber Department. Am I right?”
“You’re exactly correct. From my understanding of it, she’s been transferred back to the ‘T.W. branch’ of the department, which I can only imagine is accessible by means of one of these doors.”
“T.W.? I haven’t heard of it before, but I guess that’s not really too important. Instead of throwing open doors willy-nilly, though, we should go to see the front desk and find out where the waypoint to this other branch is. Let’s get moving, shall we?”
They advanced through the door at the end of the hall, Samantha leading the way. They entered a spacious reception area that was empty save for them, the receptionist, and a postal worker standing at the desk. They entered the back of the line. The postal worker, an absorber with a slight pink tint wearing a mail carrier hat, held a cardboard box wrapped in cellophane.
“...So then, the waypoint that’ll drop me off near Mr. Carl Black’s address is the third door on the left in hallway C?” The man behind the counter nodded curtly. “Great, thank you!” The absorber waddled off.
Once it exited the room, the man exhaled in relief, his shoulders slumping. After a second, he seemed to notice the two of them for the first time.
“Good afternoon. Welcome to the Waypoint Warehouse.” He smiled at Samantha. “How can I help you today?”
“Good day to you as well, sir.” Isaac took a step forward. “Would you be so kind as to direct us toward the Absorber Department?”
“Which branch?” He turned to the desk’s computer terminal.
“It should be the T.W. branch, I believe.”
The man nodded and began typing loudly on the mechanical keyboard. Samantha stared with undisguised awe at the blocky, single-color CRT monitor.
“It’s through hallway A, eighth door on the right.” He pointed toward a door bearing a large, scarlet capital “A”.
They thanked him and left. As they entered the door and went down the passageway, Samantha chattered excitedly to herself.
“Wow, a real computer! That’s the first one I’ve ever seen in person. I can’t believe this place can afford one at all, let alone a compact desk unit like that instead of a huge mainframe.” She mused for a second. “Right, this company just got bought out by FSGI Corp a few months back, didn’t they? That’d explain it.”
“I must admit that I’m unfamiliar with this ‘FSGI Corp’.”
“Wait, really? You haven’t heard of them?” She glanced over in surprise. “The name is short for ‘Food, Shelter, and General Infrastructure Corporation’. They’ve been all over the news, what with their flurry of takeovers and mergers. They’re pretty much the only company that’s making money instead of hemorrhaging it these days, so they’ve been eating their weaker competitors.” They stopped in front of the door. She turned to face him. “The other businesses don’t have much of a choice. They’d go bankrupt if they refused. And I mean, if you can’t beat ‘em, y’know?”
“You’re quite knowledgeable about this organization.”
“Well, they’re planning to buy out the bookstore where I work, too, so I’ve been reading up on them to figure out what all that’d entail.”