The door said “Library Elves Only.” Aline hated this. She hated that there was a part of the Library to which she didn’t have access. To be fair, she probably shouldn’t have even been able to see it. She’d waited until one of the elves left a book-ladder unattended, then scrambled up it and leapt from shelf to shelf until she reached the great scaffolding that the elves used to get around. It was such fun up there, until she found the door that forbade her.
Aline respected the rules of the Library, and even if she didn’t, the door would not open without proper identification from a certified library elf. Again, this wouldn’t be a problem for most people, as the door was up too high for anyone but a trained elf or maybe one of the Library’s owls to reach anyway. But Aline was an acrobat. She was able to access any surface, as long as there was at least one place to grip onto.
Acrobats weren’t supposed to spend so much time in the Great Library. They were supposed to spend their days in the Circus to End All Circuses, training or performing. Aline had chosen to be an acrobat, sure, but the reason was her love of climbing and flying, not her love of performing.
Aline preferred hiding.
Not hiding, really- just being alone. Not being on display. Display was dangerous. Display made you vulnerable to being hurt. Flying and climbing and delicate balance made you free, but then performance went and captured you again.
The Library, on the other hand, opened up worlds of possibility, and she relished in it.
She’d taken it upon herself to memorize every single part of the place. That way, any time she needed any bit of information, she knew precisely where to find it. The building itself was also full of stories. Not just in the literal sense, because it was obviously filled with books, but figuratively as well. Each bit of architecture, each ornamental fragment, even the make of the shelves told a story of the centuries-old history of the Great Library.
Some took to the seas to explore. Aline was content to take to the shelves.
But there was the matter of this door. There were places that were marked Staff Only, certainly, but ever since Aline had signed up to volunteer at the Library on weekends, she’d been able to weasel her way into those. This was the first door she’d seen that only allowed the library elves.
The elves were not necessarily actual elves, but were called that because the Great Library had been founded by ancient elves. These days, a library elf was anyone who had a psychic connection to the Library. That was a gift that could be bestowed on anyone, but not on Aline. Even though, now that she thought about it, it was what she wanted more than anything.
She started spending more time hiding in the rafters by the door. She was very good at being invisible. It was lucky that the circus dressed her in leotards covered in spangles and silks, or else the audience would never notice her.
That was why the library elf didn’t notice her that night. She was curled up in the shadows, having contorted herself to fit in the space of a very tall shelf, her back leaned against the stacks of six-foot-long books. She’d been reading a much smaller book when the library elf skittered past, his midnight-blue hat signifying his status, and opened the door.
Aline would never disrespect the rules of the Library. Except that she would. The thing is, no one thought of Aline as a rule-breaker, least of all herself, but she was a rule-breaker. A circus performer whose biggest fear was an audience: that’s the definition of breaking rules.
She slid the book into her bag and crawled, lizard-like, over the rafters, just in time to catch the door with her foot before it closed.
She hesitated, frozen. No sounds- no indication that the elf had noticed her.
She slipped inside the door and covered her mouth when it closed. Beyond the door was what appeared to be an inconsequential, dusty hallway, except for one thing- there was no way a hallway that long could exist there. Aline had expected the door to lead to a small room, or a staircase, based on how the door fit into her map of the Library. This hallway stretched for quite a while, fifty feet at least.
There was also no sign of the elf any longer, like he’d disappeared the moment he’d entered the hallway.
Aline hurried down the hall. She had to figure this out.
At the end was another door, which looked quite different. It was made of impossibly smooth beige wood, rather than intricately carved stone. Tentatively, she opened it.
She blinked at the light when she emerged; the hallway had been dark, and before that, the Library itself had been dark with nighttime. Out here, however, bright sunlight streamed through the windows. It was also very clearly not the Library. Well, it was a library, but it was smaller. The floor, rather than marble, was made of tightly woven carpet, and the shelves were far shorter, and made of what appeared to be cheap metal. The walls were covered in brightly colored posters and, strangest of all, there were tables holding rows of mysterious devices.
Aline made her way very carefully across the room. There were a few other people there, wearing colorful and expertly made clothes. Some sat behind desks, some walked through the shelves, some seemed to be working at the machines. Aline stood out like a unicorn in a wood, in her ratty outfit and bewildered expression.
“Can I help you?” asked an older woman. She’d emerged from behind a desk.
“Hello,” Aline said. “Yes, I seem to have accidentally wandered in here. I’m very sorry, I know the sign said- well- I’m sorry.”
“No problem,” the woman said. “Anything you need help finding?”
Aline sighed. “No, thank you.”
Admitting she had questions was a weakness. Aline did not reveal weakness. She knew what happened when she revealed weakness.
She would find out where she was by herself.
First, she’d head back to the main part of the Library. She could catch her bearings and then figure out where this room fit into the map. Was it a magical experiment? She rarely saw magic, so that would be thrilling. It would explain the size disparity and the sunlight at nighttime.
Aline headed back to the door, which was marked, “Reference librarians only,” and went back down the hallway. She didn’t notice that the door back to the Library was wrong until she stepped out into what was decidedly not her Great Library.
This place was vast, just like the Great Library, but not nearly as crowded. A fantastic hall spread itself before her, accessible by an incredibly tall stone staircase. She was surrounded on all sides by neat shelves, but not a single other person was there.
Aline startled and glanced wildly around for the source of the voice, but it seemed to be coming from everywhere. It was a crisp, clear voice with no hint of emotion.
“Attention. An intruder has entered the library. Security will be notified. Attention. An intruder has entered the library. Security will be notified.”
Oh, hell no. Aline immediately spun back around and returned to the dark hallway. She leaned against the closed door and took a deep breath.
Well, this was an unpleasant twist. It seemed that she’d entered some sort of strange portal. She could head up and down the hallway to her heart’s content, but she wouldn’t know what awaited her on the other side of the doors.
Just to be sure, she checked the door on the other end of the hall again. It was not the Great Library, the strange small library with the machines, or the creepy vast hall of books. This time, she opened the door to a wall of water. It didn’t pour into the hallway, but when she poked her hand out, it floated in the water and came back wet. She kept the door open just long enough to see actual mermaids floating through and picking out messages in bottles.
She closed the door.
Yeah, she was lost.
“This,” she muttered to herself, “is probably why the door said Library Elves Only, you idiot.”
She clasped both hands in front of her and took long, deep breaths, the way she did before a performance. OK. This wasn’t impossible. She weighed her options.
It was possible that this was some sort of punishment for entering the door. That seemed unlikely; the Great Library was not malicious. More likely, this was a magical portal, and she simply didn’t have the magical powers necessary to navigate it. Did library elves get to study witchcraft? Honestly, they had all the luck.
Aline may not have had magical powers, but she was resourceful. The doors seemed to be random. If she kept opening them, it was possible she’d end up back at the Great Library. But that could potentially take forever. These doors seemed able to access any library in the world, possibly in other worlds. It could take an infinity before she found her way back.
Libraries, though. That meant knowledge, and knowledge meant a way back.
Aline headed back down the hall to the next door. This one opened into a library made of steel. There were not many books, but there were huge windows looking out onto a veritable sea of stars.
She could do this.
First, she made her way to the books, but it quickly became obvious that they were useless, sentimental artifacts. The majority of people in the library worked at screens, embedded into a futuristic facsimile of shelves.
Aline made her way tentatively to one of the screens. She didn’t want to stand out too much. Luckily, everyone here looked wildly different from each other. The clothes varied from ballgowns to skin-tight bodysuits, and some people seemed not to be people at all, but part-animal. Occasionally she’d hear calm voices in the air, like she’d heard in that vaulted hall, but rather than warn of intruders, they made banal announcements about things like lunch menus.
It took a few minutes to figure out how to work the screens. One or two people looked quizzically at Aline, like they were going to offer help, but she made a decent show of knowing what she was doing. She didn’t need screaming, hitting, insistences that she was a worthless fool, speeches about what a burden she was, or anything else that came with admitting she needed help.
The series of letters at the bottom of the screen came in handy, as did all the various buttons. Through a combination of trial and error, and slyly observing the others, Aline figured out how to work the system.
From what she could tell, she was aboard a sky-ship, an advanced one that traveled between planets, out where the stars dwelled. This sky-ship was far bigger than the giant room that hosted its library, and was part of a network of ships devoted to the ultimate goal of learning how to walk between dimensions.
Was that what Aline was doing? Walking between dimensions? This was certainly not her home dimension.
She discovered e-books, and read her way through assorted chapters about interdimensional travel. After a few hours, she was hungry, and she remembered the announcements about lunch. She looked up a map of the ship and made her way down to the cafeteria, where she was delighted to find that no identification or money was required to get a plate of delicious, albeit completely foreign, food.
It was in this way that Aline managed to spend several days aboard the Starship Union without talking to a single other creature. She used reading, research, and context clues to figure out anything she needed, until she’d finally learned enough basic information to hack her way into the librarian’s office at night.
“All right now,” she murmured, rifling through files on the librarian’s computer (that was what the machines were called). “Give me your secrets, come on, you’re the one here who knows how to walk between dimensions… How do I get home…”
“Excuse me,” said a voice.
Aline’s eyes went horribly wide, and she looked up.
Standing in the office doorway was a reptilian creature with a crown of spikes on her head. Aline recognized her from the photos in the office- the head librarian.
Aline went on the defensive immediately, which for her meant making herself small and unimportant.
“I’ve been looking for this one book,” she said. “I know it seems silly, but I can’t find it. I suppose I don’t really need it that badly.”
“Bullshit,” the librarian said sharply. “You’re not from here, are you?”
“From where?” Aline asked, innocent.
“From the starship. From this dimension at all. You’re from another library.”
Aline’s shoulders sank.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know I’m a bad person for this. You don’t have to tell me I’m a bad person, I already know.”
The librarian’s green eyebrows rose.
“That’s not what I was going to say,” she said. “I was going to help you find your way home. You needn’t sneak in here. Where are you from? I can send you back. You’re not in trouble just because you got lost.”
Aline tilted her head. That was odd to hear, but she wasn’t dumb enough to let her guard down.
“The Great Library,” she said. “In the City of Wonders.”
The librarian nodded with recognition. “Yes, yes, I know that one. I’ll get you the pass to let you through. Do you mind bringing along a book with you, there’s been an interlibrary loan.”
“Oh,” Aline said, as the librarian handed her a thin paperback from a shelf, then typed something quickly onto her computer. A machine on the other side of the room whirred and released a card.
“Here you go,” the librarian said. “Hold this up to the door at the end of the hallway, and it’ll take you directly back to the Great Library. Don’t be afraid to ask for help next time, all right?”
Aline was not afraid to ask for help. She was just too smart to risk it.
And she did not head back home. Now that she had the card, she figured she could take her sweet time. After a few days on the starship, she realized that she’d found another option for life. She could rely on herself, and her well-honed research skills, to travel not just the world, but the worlds. And she wouldn’t be confined to one library for her travels, but any library. And this way, she didn’t need to talk to anyone to do it.
In this way, Aline spent several years touring the libraries of the multiverse. She learned about the rainbow fishes of the world beneath the Underworld, read the works of William Shakespeare of Earth, and taught herself how to make sauces that tasted like first love in the library of spices. She rarely spoke to anyone, and most worlds had little notion of starving someone just because they didn’t have money, so she was able to eat. As a circus performer, she’d learned to sleep in uncomfortable conditions, so she made do.
Her favorite library was the Forest. It had no other titles attached, just the Forest. She’d been confused at first, but a day of wandering had taught her quickly that a forest is a library just as much as any other library. It was filled with knowledge, hidden beneath each rock and written in the roots of each tree.
Plus, it was wonderfully free of fellow people.
That is, until it wasn’t.
“Who are you?”
Aline jumped. She looked up.
“Aline,” she responded.
“I’m the keeper of the Forest, the first librarian,” said the figure standing over her. His face was covered in a mossy beard, and he held a gnarled staff.
Aline bowed her head to him.
“Thank you for keeping the Forest,” she said. “I’ll leave if you need me to.”
“No, that’s not it,” he said. “I must admit I’m curious. I rarely have visitors these days. The art of library-building has expanded far beyond my realm. What brought you here?”
Aline shrugged. “Random chance? Again, I’m sorry-”
“Don’t deflect the question,” the keeper said. He brought a hand to her face. “You’re afraid. You’re so afraid. Why are you so afraid?”
In the Forest, Aline had become vulnerable. She started, involuntarily and horrifyingly, to cry.
“Oh, dear,” the keeper said. “No- it’s all right- you mustn’t be afraid. Tell me everything. How did you get here?”
It seemed that he was genuinely curious, and Aline understood that- the need for knowledge. She decided to indulge him. For the first time since her childhood, when she’d learned that lying was survival, she told the truth to someone.
“That’s spectacular,” the keeper said, when she was finished. “You not only survived passing between dimensions for years, but you thrived and learned everything there is to learn, all alone. Imagine how much you could do if you were willing to ask for help.”
Aline stared at him.
“Well, it’s a fair point,” he continued. “I can see you learned from someone not to ask for help, someone who hurt you, and it’s understandable to keep that instinct, but you’re powerful and brilliant now. What could hurt you?”
She hadn’t thought of it that way. Hadn’t thought of it at all, to be honest.
In all her research, she hadn’t thought to research this. But she supposed she could start.
“Tell me then, keeper,” Aline said. “How does one go about asking for help?”