The only personal email in the whole batch was from her mother. A quick note, as quick and brief as Irene’s own email to her supervisor, to let Irene know that she and her father would be in Alternate G-337 for the next few months. They were in Russia, looking for ikons and psalm settings. The note expressed hopes that Irene was well and enjoying herself, and asked vaguely what she might like for her birthday.
As usual, the note was unsigned. Irene was expected to read the name on the email address and not ask for more.
She rested her chin on her hands and stared at the screen. She hadn’t actually seen her parents for a couple of years now. The Library kept them all busy, and to be honest she never knew what to say to them these days. One could always discuss work, but beyond that was a whole minefield of social interaction. Her parents would probably be retiring to the Library in a few decades, and hopefully by then she’d have worked out how to make polite conversation with them. It had been so much easier when she was younger.
I’d love some amber,
she replied to the email. That should be safe enough.
The Language updates were what she might have expected, given three months’ absence. No new grammar, but some new vocabulary, most of it world-specific and dealing with concepts or items that hadn’t come to the Library before. A few adjectival redefinitions. A collected set of adverbs on the action of sleeping.
Irene scanned through them as quickly as she could. The problem with an evolving language that could be used to express things precisely was that, well, it evolved. The more contributory material agents like Irene brought into the Library, the more the Language changed. She wondered morosely if her recent prize would inspire a new word or two, or just change an old one. Perhaps it would help define a particular shade of black.
Still. There were compensations. Like being able to give orders to the world around you. But when she’d signed up for eternity, she hadn’t quite expected to spend most of it revising vocabulary lists.
The computer beeped again. It was a reply from Coppelia, and it had arrived surprisingly fast. Irene opened it, and blinked at the size of the response.
My dear Irene,
What a pleasure to see you back here again! Though of course, when I say see, I mean to be aware of your presence in the Library. It’s been several weeks now, and you wouldn’t believe how glad I am to have you back . . .
Irene frowned. This looked like something that had been prepared ahead of time. She had a bad feeling about it.
. . . and I have a little job for you to do.
Your frequent work out there in the alternates has left you behind on the required curriculum of mentoring new students, but fortunately I have been able to find a way round that.
Irene snorted. Coppelia had certainly assured her that it’d all be sorted out. But she’d given the impression of managing to sidetrack it and get round it, rather than having to make it up later via some unpleasant duty.
It just so happens . . .
She was just so totally screwed.
. . . that we have a new recruit on our hands who’s up for his first fieldwork, and naturally I thought of you as the ideal person to mentor him! You’ll be able to give him all the benefits of your experience, while at the same time getting some credits on your record for handling him.
Handling him? What was he, an unexploded bomb? She’d had quite enough of pupils in the last few weeks.
It’s quite a short assignment, and shouldn’t take you more than a few days, maybe a week. You should be operating near a fixed exit point into the nominated world, so if there are any problems or delays you can send me a report.
It sounded, Irene reflected, as if Coppelia really wanted to cover her own back on this one.
My dear Irene, I have the utmost confidence in you. I know that I can rely on you to live up to the Library’s traditions and expectations, while providing a valuable example to this new recruit.
It also sounded as if Coppelia had been reading too many bad recruitment brochures and codes of practice.
I’ve authorized Kai (that’s his name) to take one of the rapid shifts to where you are, so you can expect him any moment.
Irene paused to listen nervously. If that was true, then Kai had been allowed to use one of the most closely restricted methods of transport in the entire Library. This either meant that Coppelia didn’t want any argument and just wanted her out of the way and on the job, or that the mission was very urgent, or that there was something about Kai so dubious that he shouldn’t be seen in public. Perhaps Kai simply couldn’t handle normal Library navigation, which was bad news in itself . . . and that was multiple clauses based on an either/or, which was bad grammar. She hated bad grammar.
He’s got all the details on the mission.
Now that was really bad. That could mean that Coppelia wasn’t prepared to put it in an email. Irene could smell politics, and she didn’t want to get involved with that at all. She’d always thought that Coppelia was a more reasonable, research-oriented, only-Machiavellian-once-in-a-while sort of supervisor. Not the sort of supervisor who’d dump her with an unprintable mission, an inexperienced trainee, and a rapid push out through the nearest Traverse exit point.
Do leave your latest input material with the nearest Desk; tag it with my name, and I’ll see that it gets processed.
Well, that was something, at least . . .
From the corridor outside came a sudden gust of wind and a thud. It was reminiscent of a pneumatic pressure tube delivering papers.
A pause. A knock on a nearby door.