The Reading Room
It was a quiet night in the Gearford Science and Technology library and yet all of the city was abuzz. Rumors were rampant about the recent death of technocrat and famed inventor Charles Button.
Far from the tumult was librarian Theodore Emelior Beem, sitting at the special collections reference desk, reading the latest issue of the Journal of Flight and Technology. A small-scale model of the airship Manticore sat on the corner of his desk. Captain Fox, a calico cat sat next to him and sleepily looked at him. She yawned and stretched out her forepaws.
“It’s just you and me tonight, Captain,” sighed Theodore. With the city in an uproar, it was unsurprising the library was empty. On these rare occasions of quiet, Theodore usually spent his time catching up on reading, but tonight even he felt unsettled. Charles Button was a famous personality, a technocrat leader no less and had been a regular patron of the library. He even rated a private reading room. It wasn’t unusual for Button to send a special request for Theodore to pull a book from the reserves or from the restricted section. On those occasions, Theodore found Button to be mostly polite, if not a bit condescending.
The large grandfather clock tolled. It was ten o’clock and time to close the library. Theodore stood and shook out the stiffness in his leg. With the Captain following, Theodore made his way down the aisles of the library stacks making his final walk through before going home. While some found the library to be an unsettling place at night, with its overwhelming quiet, its statuary and portraits of people long dead, for Theodore this was his second home.
Walking through the inner hallway on the other side of the stacks Theodore paused. In front of him was Charles Button’s private reading room. He looked at the door and fingered his keys. Technically speaking, he wasn’t even supposed to have the key to Button’s reading room, but then again, he often covered for the head librarian and so certain things tended to be overlooked. He knew that he probably shouldn’t go inside. The Technocrats generally didn’t like people nosing in their business and in a few days, some men in dark suits would like descend on the room and clear it. Still Theodore was curious and this was the one of the few rooms in the library he had never seen. Usually, he left books for Button in a special drop box outside the doorway. Thinking it wouldn’t harm anyone, if he opened the door and took the briefest of looks, Theodore turned the key.
The room was cold and Theodore could feel a cool breeze at the doorway. Theodore turned on the light, which flickered for a moment. His eyes took in the sight of a room with a large desk and reading lamp. Several piles of books sat on the corner of the desk. Bookcases lined the walls. It was all rather ordinary, except for the hideous looking gargoyle that stood atop a pedestal next to the wall.
“Oh, well,” said Theodore to himself, “What did you expect?”
Theodore gave a cursory look around the room, recognizing many of the books on Button’s desk, since he had pulled most of them over the course of the last half year. He looked at the gargoyle. Although there were many of these around the library, which some found disquieting, Theodore saw these ghoulish figures as protectors of the library and so he treated them as old friends. However, this gargoyle seemed different from the others. He was carved in a slightly more modern style that would have been imperceptible to most people.
“Interesting,” thought Theodore. As he looked at the gargoyle more closely, he noticed that almost all of it was covered in a fine layer of dust. All of it was covered in dust except for the gargoyle’s right forefoot, which was almost shiny in appearance. Thinking it peculiar, Theodore touched the forefoot and give a squeeze, Theodore jumped back with start. Something behind the bookcase had clicked loudly. Pausing for a moment, and wondering if something or someone would leap from beyond the bookcase, he gave the bookcase a slight push. To Theodore’s amazement the bookcase slowly swiveled, revealing a passageway and a staircase that led down into the darkness.
The Secret Room
“Well, that was unexpected. Not at all creepy” chuckled Theodore nervously, as he cautiously looked into the darkness. Feeling less unsettled than her companion, Captain Fox, ran down the stairwell.
“Damn it all, Captain! Stop. Come up here,” yelled Theodore.
Theodore paused for a moment looking into the darkened passageway, hoping that Captain Fox might run back up the stairs. Instead, Theodore only heard a plaintive meow from the bottom of the stairwell.
Taking a deep, breath he crossed the threshold. He saw there was a slight shoulder high depression on the wall. He pressed it and a dim light took hold in the stairway. He saw Captain Fox staring up at him up.
“Okay, okay, have it your way. You’re not going to be the one getting in trouble here.”
He walked down the stairwell carefully with his cane and approached another doorway next to Captain Fox. This one didn’t appear to have a lock. He opened it and searched alongside for another light switch. As the room brightened, Theodore’s mouth dropped open.
First of all, the room was huge. Alongside the wall were bookcases. A table had a work space with a number of tools, gears and spare parts and alongside were a number of automatons. A couple of the automatons were shaped like scorpions, while a couple of other humanoid ones were child sized with darkened red eyes. Theodore shivered. There was no breeze here, but these devices were disturbing. Instead of pincers, the scorpions had two rotaries with sharpened blades, while on their tail was a mace with sharpened points.
If these were disturbing, what Theodore saw next almost took his breath away. There were several large glass containers with body parts inside of them, floating in some kind of liquid. These were not human body parts, these were Vibranni. There were several organs, hearts, lungs, a liver and a brain, and then there were a couple of disembodied heads, with their vacant Vibranni eyes looking out in what Theodore imagined to be painful agony. It was like a gallery of horrors and Theodore was totally unsettled that this gruesome place was less than a hundred yards from his library stacks.
On the next wall, Theodore saw a large portrait of Charles Button.
“What kind of man has his own picture on the wall?” whispered Theodore. Then realizing that with all that he had seen, this was maybe the least unusual thing in the room. Looking closer at the picture though, he realized this was not Charles Button. Perhaps it was Button’s father, because whoever it was bore a startling resemblance to the recently deceased inventor. The figure had mutton chop sideburns and his hair was nearly all white.
Looking to the table in the center of the room Theodore saw several piles of books. He didn’t recognize most of the books, which he found a bit strange. Several stacks of paperwork lay alongside of the books. Looking at the papers, he saw several of the papers had notations marking them as the property of Buford Automaton Company and indicating with a seal that they were highly confidential.
Although he had no expertise in automatons, a cursory glance at these documents made it clear that there was some pretty advanced science here. Certainty it was beyond anything currently in production today. What possibly could these documents be doing here? Had Button been working in concert with Buford? It didn’t seem likely. Looking at them closer, it seemed these documents from Buford Automaton had been taken through some technocratic scheme. Theodore saw the letter authorizing the procurement of Buford intellectual property by the Ministry of Civilization. This was pretty stunning stuff, and as he turned the pages, Theodore began to appreciate the scope what was happening. In these pages, Theodore saw documents and blueprints from some of Antifords most cutting edge companies. This was nothing less than government sanctioned corporate espionage.
"To what end..." muttered Theodore.
Seeing a larger portfolio on the table, Theodore opened it and jaw went slack. In these pages were things beyond his imagination. He felt a kind of horror that made him sick to his stomach. Apparently, Button was either directing or part of some of kind of large scale experiment on the Vibranni. There were tables with numbers. Presumably these numbers represented the numbers of the test subjects. It was unclear about the goal and aim of the study, It appeared that most of the subjects were dead. Were they trying to perfect artificial mechanical organs for transplant into live subjects? Was it something else, something worse perhaps? There were numerous references to a place called "Cardamon," which was puzzling in itself. Although, Theodore made it his business to know things, he had no knowledge of this place. At the end of the portfolio was a section marked, Phase IV. He opened it and his face blanched.
Captain Fox feeling annoyed at being ignored jumped on the table and flopped on her side. She looked at Theodore and purred while swinging her tail lazily. Petting her idly, Theodore found himself sweating profusely. Very few things in this world scared him, but the things in this room terrified him. He nervously tapped on the table, trying to figure out what needed to be done.
Taking a deep breath, Theodore pulled several pages from the portfolio and took several of the documents from Buford Automaton. He folded and jammed them into his pocket.
In that moment, something happened. The room had been quiet, but as Theodore began removing objects from the table, a loud ticking started and then a loud click. Looking around, Theodore didn’t see anything unusual, but then looking at the painting, he saw the eyes in the portrait begin to glow red. Then he saw the automatons, their eyes were no longer a dull red. Now their eyes glow brightly and their heads began to rotate. They were awakening.
Theodore slowly started walking towards the door and the staircase, hoping to avoid their attention. Suddenly the blades on the scorpion automatons began to rotate and whirl. The heads of the automatons slowly turned. They looked into his direction and the vacant red eyes blinked slowly. The humanoid child sized automaton seemed almost smile. It was a face that might have seemed humorous or absurd to Theodore at any other time, except that their mouths were filled with razor sharp teeth.
“Oh shit,” squeeked Theodore. Perhaps having a better sense that things had taken a frightful turn, Captain Fox ran out of the room and up the stairs.
At first slowly, the automatons moved towards him. Theodore turned off the lights, perhaps hoping these things couldn’t see in the dark. He stumbled up the stairs, cursing his half crippled legs. The red eyes of the automatons glowed brighter. They began to chase and made up ground quickly.
Almost halfway up the stairs, Theodore saw the scorpions make their way up the sides of the walls. He swung the metal head of his cane at one of the scorpions, knocking it into the small humanoid automatons, which had been scampering up on the stairs on all fours.
“Ha! Well struck,” yelled Theodore, but then he saw that this only slowed them for a moment.
With two of their numbers tangled, the other two automatons crawled over, their red eyes gleaming malevolently. Nevertheless, Theodore was now closer to the doorway and he began to hope. He might make it. He stumbled through the doorway at the top of the stairwell.
Theodore leaned on the bookcase door trying to close it. The other scorpion had almost reached him. It’s whirring blades spinning perilously close, even while its spiked tail waved at his face. Theodore pulled back and kicked his leg out with all of his strength. The scorpion skidded across the floor and down a few steps.
Theodore began pushing the door close again. Already the scorpion had turned back towards him. Just was door was almost closed, the humanoid automaton closest to him, jumped forward wedging its arms in the opening trying to pull the door open. Turning its head, the automatons red eyes narrowed and it seemed to smile with an evil grin. It seemed to say something, but before it could do anything more, Theodore shoved all of his weight into the doorway, snapping the arms of the automaton. As the door slammed Theodore heard a click. It was locked.
Laying on the floor, with his back to the doorway Theodore breathed heavily. Captain Fox meowed and rubbed herself against his leg.
“What the hell was that?” muttered Theodore. He shook his head and shivered. Part of him wanted to close the door, burn these papers and forget that any of this had ever happened. Yet, part of him wondered if he could, or should forget. Something terrible was happening in Gearford, but what possibly could he do? After all, he was only a librarian. He also reminded himself about the airship that he was building in his home. He had only just started this project. Selfishly, he wondered if this might all throw his plans for the airship into doubt. He also worried about the government. What if someone learned that he had found Button’s secret room?
Standing up, he felt a sharp pain in his ankle. In the excitement of his escape, he must have turned his ankle. He took a deep breath. Putting his hand in his pockets, Theodore groaned. In the commotion of escaping Button’s secret room, he must have dropped the papers from the portfolio, including the documents from Buford Automaton. He had lost all evidence of what he has just seen.
“Damn it all,” muttered Theodore. As much as it pained him, he would have to return to that terrifying room to get those papers. He needed evidence. In a few days, he would be working another night shift. Hopefully in that time, his ankle would have healed. He would also bring some weapons this time, just in case he might have to fight through those horrible automatons.
Illustration by Bert Wallbank Copyright 2019
Two days later when he was again closing the library, Theodore waited until all of the patrons had left the building. Walking to the door of Button's reading room he paused. In the meanwhile, Captain Fox sat next to the door grooming herself.
"Glad you're not worried," muttered Theodore.
Over the last several days, Theodore had deeply pondered the prospect of going back into Button's reading room and the secret room. It was pretty much the only thing in his thoughts. As a result, nightmares now interrupted his sleep, along with visions of red eyed automatons chasing him. He had briefly considered the possibility of procuring a gun before returning to the secret room, but quickly dismissed the idea. Bringing a gun into the library seemed like singularly bad idea.
Theodore took a deep breath and wiped the sweat from his brow. Pulling a long club from his belt, he turned the key to the door, not knowing what to expect.
What he saw, shocked him. There was nothing in the room. The desk had been completely cleared. The bookcases were empty and the gargoyle was no longer there. Someone must have come and cleaned out the room. It was as if Charles Button had never been there.
Closing the door, Theodore quickly walked towards his reference desk. What should he do now? Without evidence, everything he had seen was just a wild and unbelievable story. Going to the law was unquestionably a bad idea. In all likelihood, they wouldn't be on his side and if anything his curiosity would earn him a few evenings in an interrogation room.
“What if they find out we were there?” said Theodore to the Captain.
Sitting at his desk, he placed his head in his hands. Captain Fox gave a little chirp of a meow and Theodore absentmindedly scratched under her chin. He could never forget what he had seen. What he witnessed in that room, was more terrible than even his worst imaginings, but for now there was nothing to be done. However, if only a fraction of what he had seen was real, it shed a whole different light on the technocrats. He would bide his time and in the meanwhile he would keep his eyes and ears open. If there was something this terrible happening in Gearford, eventually it would come to light. In the meanwhile, Theodore would quietly and with all due haste build his airship, but all the more he needed to be careful, for surely these were dangerous and scary times.