by Rodney E. Schmidt
It was midnight.
Gloria stood on the balcony ledge, yelling at the culprit who hid in the darkness. She begged him to show his face, rise from the shadows, and be a man. But no one answered her.
Who’s scared of a library clerk? Gloria thought.
An action-packed fantasy circled in her mind. It was a dangerous thought, but it excited her, filling a void in her boring life. In her imagination, she dropped from the balcony, bashed the invader with hardback texts, and dragged him out the door, leaving a trail of blood.
Gloria yelled, “I have work to do.”
She tossed one of the heavy texts onto her book cart. The sound of metal rattling was pleasant.
She licked her lips and swallowed globs of saliva before saying, “Run now so I can get back to what I want to do.”
No one responded. Only the sound of books sliding off shelves, a few falling on the ceramic tiles, and some dry pages turning in a lifeless room, but no one showed themself. The criminal was clever to hide in the dark corners of the library, in the crevices without light sensors. He hid so well that it was hard not to assume he had broken in before.
“Take what you want and get out,” Gloria said. “Just stay the hell away from me.”
She stepped away from the ledge, meeting back up with her book cart. The A-frame on wheels held over a hundred old and new books carefully labeled and organized by each section. Gloria’s method for managing call numbers, a universal system within most libraries, was one of two things she’d learned in jail.
The intruder moved, activating the security lights and highlighting a sign above the shelf labeled Juvenile. He hid from view, but he was there.
“You’ve been misled,” Gloria said. “You’re in the children’s section.”
Fighting an invader sounded fun, but her life had more value than old manuscripts. She pulled out her phone and dialed 911. Her thumb dropped on the plexiglass but never made contact: the phone vanished.
The light in the children’s collection turned off, then back on.
“So, there’s two of you?” Gloria asked.
“No, just me,” said a voice from the ground floor, still hidden from sight.
The phone popped back into her hand with the normal spider web cracks on the screen and chipped edges but half the normal weight.
“Where’s my battery?” Gloria asked.
“It’s outside on the seventh step from the bottom,” the intruder said. “Someone is going to need it.”
Gloria listened to the vacant library, the wind pushing through the holes in the old structure, the whooshing. A beam of dust spotlighted by the overhead light spiraled in the middle of the room. Its hypnotic swirl guided Gloria’s attention across the room, where the emergency phone’s bright blue light glowed. She hated asking for help, especially from an authority, but there was no choice.
She moved toward the azure aura, her only way to communicate with the outside. She took two steps, looked over her shoulder—the coast was clear—then took two more. Sneaky quickness, Gloria thought. The soft wood squeaked and cracked with every step. Some diagonal squares produced less noise than face-to-face ones; she walked on those first. Sometimes, when she finished all her work, she would make up games where the silent wood planks were a safe zone, and the squeaky ones meant she died. She would also see how fast she could sprint without activating the loud tiles. In order to get to the emergency phone safely, she played the same games. But for the first time, Gloria was not playing alone.
She had five steps: one, two, three—boom. Her body plowed into a prominent metal figure, knocking her to the floor.
It happened too quickly to process; it wasn’t possible.
The abnormality moved quickly, but the structural details stayed: eyes, head, limbs, and a body made of metal. Nothing like it existed outside of comic books and sci-fi shows.
Gloria shook the confusion from her brain and went back into action. She crawled to the phone, pounding her knees into the floor, not caring who heard her. Boom, boom, boom–it was hard to miss the sound of her knees drumming on the wood.
The metal man returned.
Gloria reached up and grabbed the phone. It rang once with a cicada vibration, then stopped. The telephone had two frayed tails hanging: one from the phone in Gloria’s hand and the other from the box.
“I’ll take note of this lapse,” a man’s voice said behind her. “I’ve done this job many times, but some things get missed.”
Gloria whipped her body around and smashed the phone on the man’s face, sending plastic shards through the air.
The metal man didn’t move.
“There’s no need to be violent,” he said. He flicked some of the plastic pieces off his face and shoulders.
The metalloid appeared to be safe and, more importantly, actual. He was an android, a human-shaped machine with two arms and two human-shaped legs formed with metal. Each limb had gaps in the metal plates that exposed an advanced vascular system of wires circled with fluorescent lights. Its chest had an LED screen with odd symbols moving across the four-by-four-inch plate. The words and letters weren’t in English, but that didn’t matter. Gloria couldn’t have read them even if they were.
“What the hell are you?” Gloria asked.
“I’m a correction android,” it said. “CA76, to be precise.”
Gloria stepped back and scanned the room. The floors, the walls, the books, and the elevator looked different in her stressed haze. She was out of her element and needed to hide and figure out what the hell was going on.
The second thing Gloria learned in jail was to run when outgunned. Run until the road stops; run until you hit a wall, then climb until you hit the ceiling. “There’s no shame in living for another day,” her bunkmate had told her.
She grabbed two books off the nearest shelf and ran.
The android popped up along her running path, then vaporized as fast as Gloria moved. It appeared and disappeared on various pieces of furniture: a bookshelf, a couch, a coffee table, then back to the sofa. The metal man watched Gloria skirt the reading lounge and move to the elevator, where she fisted the elevator button, cracking the plastic bubble. The doors were slow, so she muscled them open. But escape was impossible. The android was already inside.
“I wish we did not have to do this every time,” the android said.
Gloria stepped back before slapping the android with a hardback book. His metal face shifted to the right. The other book was next, but before it came across the android’s face, he grabbed Gloria’s wrist with his aluminum claw, slicing through her human skin.
“I’ll take that,” the android said. “I’ve been looking for this all night.”
“What do you need library books for?” Gloria asked, holding her sliced-up wrist.
“It’s my job.”
“No. This is my job, not yours.”
The android had no facial expressions to indicate if he was a threat or if he came in peace.
“Goodbye,” the android said.
He vaporized, leaving nothing but the smell of oil.
The late shift suited a malefactor: no personalities, pleasantries, or need to cooperate with co-workers or the public. It was a paradise for the disorderly.
Monday through Friday, from six at night until three in the morning, Gloria hustled alone in the three buildings on Independence Avenue, putting away some of the oldest, rarest books in the world. Some with plastic dust jackets, others without because they would tarnish the prestige; specially trained librarians handled those. Every week, Gloria stopped to look at some of Jefferson’s books that had survived the fire of 1812; they sat in a temperature-controlled room with low-wattage lights and a dehumidifier filtration system. She imagined they smelled like the fire that had taken the rest. Presidents, members of Congress—anyone who made promises to the public (and a few lonely librarians)—looked at the pages. Having access to such precious pieces of paper made one feel important.
The ostentatious buildings were a judgment-free zone where a woman in her twenties who lacked a proper education could get close to literature without questions. Unlike most library staff, Gloria had a poor education; she couldn’t read, never received a high school diploma, and never attended a typical school. She might have read hundreds of books, but she did that with the guidance of audio files and those who read aloud in correctional facilities. Most of the time, Gloria had no choice in the books. But now, on the outside, she could find a beautifully designed dust jacket with a picture of outer space or astronauts or robots and then type the book name into her phone and download the audio version. The book and audio file would work as a reading lesson and entertainment.
Sometimes texts were too complicated for her. A lot of the hard science fiction required some esoteric knowledge that seemed impossible to learn. In those cases, she would stop following along and just listen to the audio file, not focusing on the backstory, only on the characters’ struggle to live.
The fantasies helped Gloria get through her shift. With her book cart, named the X-Wing, she would fantasize that the A-frame cart with rusty bearings had enough ammunition to take on a wild space opera. Every night she pushed her X-Wing up and down the aisles of the Library of Congress, shooting books back to their proper locations, announcing which galaxies or planets faced punishment for their misdeeds, and the dictators enslaving each area. Every invisible battle she fought helped her with some of her struggles in the real world.
When the battles got old, Gloria created new series with new plots based on the stories from her favorite writers. Her cherished creation started with A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, followed by Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, then finished with The Left Hand of Darkness. In Gloria’s story, Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent are picked up by Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing and go on an adventure to deliver a message to the people on the ice planet of Winter. Her story had holes, but those inconsistencies allowed her to stay grounded in reality, which she struggled to find when the android invaded the library.
On the first floor, sitting in the lounge area with a stack of books, CA76 scanned multiple books with its eyes.
Gloria navigated around the metal man. She didn’t know what was happening, what an android wanted with old books. It was curious and frightening because the metal figure stood over her in strength, height, and abilities.
“I’ll only be a minute,” CA76 said.
“I need my battery,” Gloria said.
Gloria looked around the room, thinking the battery would return. It didn’t.
“What are you doing here?” Gloria asked.
“Making corrections,” CA76 said.
“You can’t edit them now, stupid.”
“That is the kind of dialogue I expect from you.”
“What are you?”
“You need me to preface this moment, right? I have done it before. I am a correction android, designed to jump time and correct discrepancies created by literature.”
“None of that is possible.”
“Let me think of something I have never asked you before.” The android paused while it flipped several pages on its notepad until it reached the first page. “Here we go: You ever heard of Joni Toni?”
“You have not, and that is because I have done my job. The kids’ books by JT would have inspired an uprising in 2045 and caused the stock market to crash.”
“A children’s book does this?”
“Not anymore. I deleted the author’s story from history. No one will ever hear of her, and the stock market will not crash.”
CA76 returned to its books, flipping open the books and scanning the front covers and inside pages.
“I don’t know who built you,” Gloria said, “but they must’ve been dumb. Did your creators forget about a little thing called the internet? It’s been all the rage for the past fifty years. You can look up any book ever made.”
“Of course, I know about the internet,” CA76 said. “You ask me this every time, and I explain that this library has—no, you know what? I come here because of you. Forget about the collections, the out-of-print, the books that only exist in this building. I am here because you are my only friend.”
Gloria checked her pulse. She didn’t wonder if she was dreaming, only if she was still alive.
“How do you travel in time?” she asked.
“You ask me that every time, too. I will write that down, so the next time we meet, I will start with that.” He opened his chest cavity and pointed to a black liquid boiling in a glass ball. “One-one-five—I cannot travel without it.”
“We’ve met before?”
“Do not worry. Society will learn about the element running through my veins in five years. You will not, though.”
“Answer my question.”
“Do you know how timelines work?”
“If they’re anything like The Time Machine or Slaughterhouse-Five, then yes.”
“Nothing like that.” The android processed. “According to my database, Wells understood it, but Vonnegut was not referencing time travel.”
The android paused.
CA76 pulled out a book and dropped it on the table. The android tapped the text repeatedly with its index finger, dimpling the soft brown cover, then told Gloria about essential books in time and how society will never know them. He went into the complex nature of modernizing society with technology, not thought. Books, the android claimed, were filled with fantasies about new cultures and worlds, but that was a lie. According to CA76, books, especially science fiction, horror, and fantasy, were reflections of the current state of paranoia in society. At least, that’s what his programming made him think.
The android went further into his history. He talked about a recent change in programming that allowed him to take a book from the library, scan the pages, then travel deeper in history to correct the book’s creator. In his words, unlike humans, technology was not susceptible to the laws of time travel. Every word stored in the android went to the future even though it was never written. The death of a story was a trialless crime.
Gloria listened and nodded when it seemed fitting. She said, “Oh,” when CA76 bent forward, waiting for a response. The android claimed the lack of progress was due to advancements, to which Gloria responded with a smile. It was hard for her to remain interested when the android ended every statement with the justification, “At least that’s what my programming states.”
A small antenna on the android’s right ear flashed pink. The light pulsed, and the android stopped talking.
Confused and bored by the awkward silence, Gloria stepped away.
“Where are you going?” CA76 asked. “I wasn’t through.”
“Nor am I,” Gloria said. She pointed to her book cart.
“You say that every time. I’ll write that down, too.”
“Why do you keep saying crap like that?”
The android looked at Gloria, nodded, then vaporized, taking every book off the cart. Different sections of the library lit up in bright flashes. Lights on the bottom chased the android. Gloria checked her watch, wanting to clock the time traveler’s speed, but he finished too fast.
The android reappeared, pulled out a notepad, read something, then said, “I know; you have one more.”
Gloria smiled and said, “There’s one more cart by the front desk. It has a—”
He vanished with the books and all of Gloria’s work for the night. Thank God, she thought. With all the extra time on her hands, she could look for a hidden gem on the shelves or reunite with a forgotten story.
She knew every shelf and the books that occupied them in the Jefferson building. That row housed Ray Bradbury, that one Asimov, and a signed copy of the first Amazing Stories was hidden behind a book not checked out in fifteen years. The books predated her life, but they also allowed her to live another one, on any date, among every life form in the galaxy.
“Where are you going?” CA76 asked. It popped up in front of her, giving her only a foot to stop before smashing into the android’s steel chest plate.
“I’m going to find something new,” she said.
“You asked me a question.”
“Right, but you didn’t answer.” Gloria went around CA76. “Have we met before?”
“We met here exactly twenty-six times and on this day.”
It took her a second to process the answer.
“And now you lost me,” she said, moving over to the shelves.
“Let’s not go into the logistics,” CA76 said. “Just know that we will meet again for the first time in the future, and it will happen on this same night, this same year, in this same place.”
An alarm went off on the android’s wrist, prompting it to turn away.
Gloria watched while CA76 walked down another aisle, hiding from view, not speaking, and not finishing the conversation.
She went after him and said, “Why do we only meet today?”
“Because this facility is set to be destroyed,” CA76 said.
Gloria looked around the room. The smell of smoke was in the air, but no sign of it. Something pounded on the roof, followed by a hollow pounding above her head. A man whispered too soft to translate but loud enough to exist.
The android’s chest screen folded down so that only he could view the screen. His expressionless face suggested nothing was amiss, no reason to be afraid. He tapped the glass screen several times, looked up at the roof, then pressed the screen back into his chest. He looked at Gloria, nodded, then vanished.
It was time to leave.
Gloria ran to the ground floor, pounding each step, not worrying if the android cared about her attempt to call it a night and go home. She got to the ground floor and slammed into the exit door. It didn’t budge. On the outside, someone had laced chains and rebar through the door handles. A man wearing an oversized coat walked up the steps, bent down, and picked up what looked like Gloria’s phone battery. She banged on the glass, hoping the guy would help her, but he ran off.
Her face turned pale; bubbles of sweat formed on her face. She scanned the room for anything heavy, strong enough to break the glass. The few books on the front counter were thick, but they were no match for the double-pane windows.
On the far corner, several wastebaskets stood full of the day’s trash. Gloria hugged the heaviest one, lugged it over, then swung from her hip, sending it to the glass. It bounced off, sending debris all over the place. She pounded, stomped on the glass with the heel of her boot, and pleaded with the world outside the library, but no one was around.
The front doors were not an option.
Gloria sprinted to the back, where an old flight of stairs led into a dark hall lined with yellow bricks—the path connected directly to a train, which joined the Jefferson building to the Senate. Gloria sprinted through the winding hall, past all the yellow bricks, and down a few steps until she saw a wrought-iron gate. Again, chains and rebar secured her inside.
CA76 stood waiting for Gloria on the same balcony she’d hung off moments before. He monitored the ticks on his watch. A loud bang came from the roof, followed by the thump-thump of Gloria climbing up the steps from the basement.
“Why are you doing this to me?” Gloria asked, looking up at the android. “This is you, isn’t it?”
“What’s about to happen has nothing to do with me,” CA76 said. “I told you my job: correct the words of the past and collect some of the literature. It’s beyond my control.”
“Am I going to die?”
With expressionless eyes and mouth, the android stared at Gloria and said, “Yes.”
Gloria looked around the room. There had to be something strong enough to break the glass.
“There’s no way out,” CA76 said. “I’ve corrected the failures of the past to make sure you cannot leave again.”
“Take me to your time, then. I can survive; it’s what I know how to do.”
“I think you’ve read too many sci-fi novels.”
“Don’t do this.”
The android looked at his wrist, where a tiny green orb hovered. With its index finger pointed at the ball, it rotated the sphere around and around faster until it brought its palm over the globe.
“Can’t do it,” CA76 said. It looked at Gloria. “Your presence in the future will upset the history we are writing here.”
“Please,” Gloria said.
The fear paralyzed her in a way that clouded her mind from the present. At that moment, she thought about her abusive childhood and the nights she slept on the streets and ate from dumpsters. Those days had been dark, but she never gave up. She thought about when her landlord had given her the keys to her apartment: Gloria cried when the metal touched her hand. She never imagined a place of her own, a room without a bunkmate, a place where she could close both her eyes at night. From living like a rat in a cage to a person with privacy, she had lived many lives, but she feared this was the last.
“I’ve tried to visit you on other dates,” CA76 said, “but you’re only willing to talk to me on this day. I went to the day before a couple of times. Each time, it did not end well. This is not my first hand; these are my third set of eyes. You also cut off my ear once.” He pulled out his notepad. “My maker wipes my memory when I go forward in time, so I have to take notes and review them before I see you.”
Gloria began to cry.
“Don’t do that,” CA76 said. “You’ve never done that.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m about to die,” Gloria said. She slumped down against the wall. “I don’t want to die.”
An alarm rang upstairs, then on the ground floor. Giant gray plumes rose to the upper levels. No explosions, no flames, just smoke.
“Are you bothered?” Gloria asked.
“I assure you, worse things than death bother me,” CA76 said.
Gloria hadn’t noticed, but every fire extinguisher was missing from the building. In every corner hung empty glass boxes where the extinguishers would typically sit.
“Do I have to die?” Gloria asked.
“Yes,” CA76 said. “Each political party will use your death. One party will claim you were a victim of society, while another will claim you are a victim of inequality.”
“What does that matter?”
“Oh, it doesn’t, but you asked, so I told you.”
The android handed over a copy of The Anarchist Cookbook. He opened the book to a section with instructions on building bombs with a cell phone battery. Then he pulled out an envelope and placed it on the front counter. The envelope said, Dear Fascist.
“No, please,” Gloria begged. “I would never do any of this.”
“Can I tell you something?” CA76 asked.
The android looked at Gloria, waiting for her to respond. She didn’t care, though.
“Society doesn’t like outcasts,” CA76 said. “Once you become an outcast, you become dangerous. If you went with the flow of the herd, you would blend in and be part of a community, a family. Once you turn your back on what the government calls a useful item, they figure out how to make you more useful. If you can’t fit in, the government will make it so you burn out.”
“I don’t have anyone,” Gloria said.
“I know you don’t like people, but what about a dog, fish, or friend?”
“Or an android?”
“It does not matter now.” CA76 looked at his watch. “You might not believe it, but based on my analysis of your personality and my programming, we would’ve been great friends.”
The smoke got thicker; it was hard to breathe. Gloria fanned the haze away from her eyes while she moved toward the front desk. With the push of her hip, the swing doors on the receptionist’s desk opened, allowing her to move behind the counter.
“I’ve dismantled that phone too,” CA76 said.
Gloria put her hand under the counter. The android leaned over to see what she was doing.
“I’ve also disarmed the panic button,” he said. “Trust me; I’ve done this too many times. There was a big learning curve, but I have it now.” He pulled out his notepad. “You see this? I’ve documented every interaction we’ve had. I try to do things differently each time so that I can learn more and more about you. And I have.”
Something exploded upstairs. A loud whooshing sound filled the room, glass shattered, and multiple ceiling tiles crashed down to the ground floor. Both Gloria and CA76 looked upstairs and spotted their impending doom.
CA76 focused on the flames flying off the second floor while Gloria studied the android. She focused on his attention, his analysis of the situation. She imagined he saw it before, and knew what was going to happen. For some reason, CA76 enjoyed the flames. And that was fine with Gloria.
She looked at the desk, the android, and then back to the desk. She reached a little farther than earlier. It’s there, she thought.
She pulled out an emergency axe clipped underneath. It was heavy with its steelhead and wood handle but light enough for her to lift it over her head and slice it into the android, sending element one-one-five out of its chest.
“You fool,” CA76 said. “I can’t go back without that.”
Gloria hopped over the counter, ripped the axe from CA76’s chest, and moved to the front door. With the axe handle gripped, she swirled her body around and smashed into the bottom pane of glass. The window cracked into a spider web. She spun again, cutting the axe deeper, sending shards into the air.
The smoke got thicker, and each breath was a struggle. Gloria pulled her shirt over her mouth, trying to stop the smoke from filling her lungs. But it was too late. She swung the axe once again, sticking the head through the glass. It was a small victory with a huge setback: the axe was stuck.
The android plucked broken pieces from its chest, flicking them into the air: no expression on his face, no urgency.
“You’ve destroyed me,” he said. “I have no purpose now.”
Gloria released her grip on the axe handle and collapsed; the smoke was too much. The grey clouds in the room got thicker and thicker, making it impossible for her to breath. At that moment, she looked out the window and had to admit defeat. She’d fought and fought so much throughout her life, but this was one fight she couldn’t win. No jail-time lessons or strength could get her out of this bind.
Each inhale contained more smoke than clean air; it burned her throat, causing her to cough. She tried to take in more and more oxygen, but she couldn’t. The smoke surrounded her, blurring her vision and screwing with her mind. Every physical fight and verbal confrontation vanished. People who did nothing for her and those who did everything were the same. The lonely nights on the streets were moments of contemplation. Somehow, everything was in a suitable place, a good place.
CA76 approached Gloria while foam bubbled around her lips. He put his foot under her body and shoveled her away from the door. She rolled over, face down on the tile.
A cold breeze pushed through the crack in the glass. The fresh outdoor air and indoor heat created a patch of fog around the hole. The android looked at the snow flurries tumbling across the cement.
“It doesn’t snow where I come from,” CA76 said.
He ripped the axe from the glass without much effort and sent it back harder. The windowpane exploded into thousands of diamonds sprinkling all over the floor. He dropped the axe next to Gloria, bent down, and scooped up her limp body.
Smoke barreled outside, hiding CA76 while he stepped away from the library with Gloria in his arms.
Out on the snow-covered grass, the android carelessly dropped Gloria on the ground. Her face planted into the snow, but that didn’t matter. She wasn’t moving.
East of the library, a siren echoed off the buildings. The woo, woo, woo rang, but no lights were near. A harsh breeze pulled the snow down and rattled the naked tree branches against each other. The woo died down while a whining siren overpowered the previous sound. Either firefighters, the police, or an ambulance was coming, but none were in sight.
CA76 flipped Gloria’s body over, wrapping one metal claw over her wrist and the other over her heart. No heartbeat, no breath, nothing came from her. He pressed hard on her heart with one claw and put the other over her liver. A bright flash came from each hand, jolting Gloria to a ninety-degree angle.
“What the hell happened?” Gloria asked.
“Your heart stopped,” CA76 said.
Gloria looked at the flames crowning the library’s roof, then at the streets where the sirens rang.
Her heart pounded in her chest, giving her the strength to get up and get away as fast as possible. There was no way to justify the fire to the police. Once they found the phone, the letter, and the copy of The Anarchist Cookbook, all fingers pointed one way.
CA76 grabbed Gloria’s arms and burned the wounds on each one. She didn’t flinch for a second. Her attention scanned the roads and fields, marking which routes provided a way out.
“If you’re done with me,” CA76 said, “I will self-destruct. I am not allowed to get captured.”
Gloria inspected the android’s handiwork. Several worm-shaped scars covered the slices in her skin, sealing up the wounds. They were sensitive but not painful. The android had tried to kill her, but he also had saved her. It was a conundrum.
“I’ve listened to enough science fiction novels to know this could be the start of a great adventure.”
“I’m not designed for adventures.”
“There’s no design in life.”
“I beg to differ.”
The red and blue lights covered the streets.
“Do you want to self-destruct?” Gloria asked. “Or do you want to keep on living?”
Gloria smiled at CA76, then ran into the foggy night. CA76 watched her fade into the fog, turning into a silhouette. Three loud vehicles were in sight. The android opened its wrist to three red buttons. It put one finger on the first button, then the second, but paused before pressing the third.
“Come on,” Gloria’s voice rang in the darkness.
The android released the buttons and closed its wrist compartment before fleeing into the fog.
The Jefferson building pulsed with yellow flames, shadowing every tree and bush surrounding the facility. From the west, blue and red lights got brighter and brighter. Off in the north, two strangers plunged into the darkness.