‘How did they move books through that?’
‘They didn’t, usually. They routed them round some other way. But it was useful if you were in a hurry.’
He jerked a thumb at the window. ‘Have you ever seen anyone out there?’
‘No. Nor has anyone.’ The passageway levelled out, then began to slope downwards again. ‘Now if only we could find a Traverse that accessed onto that, wouldn’t it be interesting.’
‘Yeah. That was one of the big topics of conversation among the students.’ Kai sighed.
Irene had been looking around, and she saw what she wanted on the left. ‘Just a moment,’ she said, indicating a slot in the wall. ‘Let me drop this book off for Coppelia.’
Kai nodded, and slouched against the wall, leaving Irene to take an envelope from the stack by the wall slot and slide her book into it. He did lean over just a little bit as she scribbled Coppelia’s name on the envelope, just enough to see the title of the book, and his eyes narrowed in curiosity. ‘You could always take it to her in person,’ he suggested. ‘Say you wanted to make sure she got it, and ask her a bit more about the assignment while you were there.’
Irene dropped the envelope into the slot and raised an eyebrow at him. ‘Yes, and I could also get myself called an ignorant buffoon who didn’t know how to read orders, let alone follow them. Someone who clearly didn’t deserve any sort of mission, if I was just going to come running back to her for more details when she’d given me everything I needed.’
‘Oh.’ Kai sighed. ‘Oh well.’
‘Did you think I hadn’t heard that speech from her?’
‘I know I have. I was kind of hoping you hadn’t.’
‘Yes.’ Irene gave him a brief smile before starting to walk again. ‘Good try, though. So, 395.’ The corridor turned and they walked into a room containing two terminals on a glossy ceramic table. One was being used by a young man, who didn’t bother looking up, keeping his focus on the monitor’s screen. His brown suit was scruffy and battered at the elbows and knees, and lace cuffs framed his bony wrists. It was probably appropriate for whatever alternate he’d just come from, or was about to go to. And it was still better than Irene’s current battered grey dress.
‘See,’ Irene said, and took a seat at the other terminal. ‘Give me a moment and I’ll find the best route to get to the Traverse point for this mission.’ And pick up anything else I can about that world, she added to herself. She’d been too flustered by Kai’s arrival to do the sort of research she’d normally put in on a mission. Also, even if they were briefed by the alternate’s Librarian-in-Residence, it’d be useful to have some idea of where they were going.
Kai looked around pointedly at the lack of other chairs, then sank down to sit cross-legged with his back to the wall, with an air of saintly patience.
Irene quickly logged in and pulled up the map. The Traverse to B-395 was within half an hour’s walk. Better than she’d hoped. No wonder Coppelia had sent Kai to her, rather than have Irene come to meet her. She reached for the usual pen and notepad, and jotted down directions, before looking for more information on the alternate itself.
Her reaction must have shown on her face, because Kai straightened and frowned at her. ‘What is it—’
Irene hastily pointed at the other young man, and mouthed Shhh, putting her finger to her lips in as obvious a manner as she could.
Kai glared at her, then relaxed again, looking away.
She scribbled down the few facts hastily, then folded the paper and logged off the computer. With a vague nod to the young man, she got to her feet and strode for the door. ‘Come on, Kai,’ she said briskly.
Kai rose elegantly to his feet and strolled after her, his hands in his pockets.
Some way down the corridor on the far side, once out of earshot, she said, ‘I apologize for that.’
‘Oh, don’t worry,’ Kai replied. He twitched a shoulder in casual dismissal, seemingly fascinated by the beech-panelling and decorated plaster ceiling. His voice was arctic in tone. ‘You’re quite right, I shouldn’t have made a noise and disturbed other students at work. I apologize for offending against the Library rules—’
‘Look,’ Irene said before he could get any more sarcastic, ‘don’t get me wrong. I’m not apologizing for being rule-orientated.’
‘No. I’m apologizing for snapping at you to shut you up, because I couldn’t discuss classified information with someone else in the room.’
Kai took a few more paces. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Right.’
Irene decided that was the closest to an apology she was going to get for the moment. ‘Our destination is quarantined,’ she said briskly. ‘It’s listed as having a high chaos infestation.’ Which meant its risk factor went way beyond simply dangerous, she thought furiously. What was Coppelia thinking, sending them there? If a magically active world was quarantined, that meant it had been corrupted by chaotic forces. Its magic had tipped just too far the wrong way in the balance between order and disorder. As Kai would have been told, chaos corrupting ordered worlds was an age-old and potentially lethal hazard for Library operatives. And it went against everything that the Library represented, as an institution upholding order. A high level of chaos would mean that they could expect to meet the Fae, creatures of chaos and magic, who were able to take form and cause disorder on such a corrupted world. And that was never good news.