The two of them began to weave in and out of the expanse of unfinished tales. Siyada was evidently sure of her path through the Stacks, though as Asher looked around, all of it appeared indistinguishable. Suddenly, his eyes lit upon a map posted at the end of one of the large aisles.
At last! He thought. Where our hero had come from, his map had been an invaluable source to progress the plot line and to point him in the direction of his destiny. Why should this one be any different? He quietly ceased in following Siyada and began to study the display before him. His heart sank after a few moments. This map doesn’t show all of this place, he thought to himself. It couldn’t. I can see far more stacks than these just by glancing down the row.
“Lost?” Asher started at the sudden voice. He turned around slowly, wincing at the prospect of finding yet another three-eyed, tentacled creature behind him. He was relieved to discover it was only Siyada, but he still found her feline appearance to be startling.
“Relax,” she purred. “It’s only me. I realized you’d stopped following, so I came back for you. I’m sorry if I seemed to sneak up. I’m written to be stealthy.”
“That’s quite alright,” Asher sighed. “Why is the map incomplete? And where can I find the rest of it? Surely there is an exit, and I am bound to find it.”
“Don’t get your hopes up. All the maps in this place show but a small surrounding area. A search for an exit would be futile. Now come with me. I know you have more questions, and Archie has the answers. Whether or not he will give all of them to you, though, may be another matter.”
“Why is that? Does this ‘Archie’ require some sort of token for his services?”
“Not exactly. But he seems to believe that much of what he knows is privileged information, or ‘classified,’ as he puts it. Just follow me. We’re not so far away now from the largest Archie Hub I know.”
Asher opened his mouth to ask yet another question, but Siyada shook her head at him. “No more questions until we arrive, please. As I said, we’re almost there.”
Asher withheld all his burning inquiries with a noble effort befitting his knighthood, but it effectively turned the walk into the longest leg of his journey thus far.
Ultimately, Asher and Siyada reached a large, carpeted clearing among the Stacks over which an enormous edifice towered.
“Alas! This is surely the hub of which you spoke!” Asher cried triumphantly.
“Um… yes. This is it.”
“Where is this sage Archibald?”
“Archie. It’s short for Archives, Asher. Archie is what they call an artificial intelligence, and he houses the archives in digital form. He knows every line of every page of every incomplete story in this place... and more. But he’s not a real person or even a made-up character. He’s a computer.”
Asher had comprehended almost nothing of what he had just been told, but he nodded his head eagerly in hopes that it might speed things along. “Take me to him!”
Siyada rolled her cat-like eyes. “Very well, then. Let’s find a screen. As you can see, this structure has many sides. Ten, to be exact. Each side serves as a large screen, and we need only walk up to a side that isn’t being used and address Archie to begin.
Asher nearly bolted over to the nearest blank screen, but Siyada stuck a claw out to stop him. “You’d best let me help you this first time. It’s strange being exposed to things like this when you’ve never seen them before.”
Asher, slightly deflated, resigned to walking over at a more regular pace. As the two approached the structure, our hero realized that the screen reached nearly fifteen feet high, almost twice the height of any of the bookstacks. To him, it looked like nothing more than a strange black wall, but with a slight touch from Siyada’s palm, it turned entirely white.
“Is it... sorcery?” Asher asked, almost beneath his breath.
“Not sorcery, and not magic at all.” Siyada said. “Science. Electricity. Whatever that is. It’s beyond the understanding of characters like you and me.” She paused a moment before turning to the screen and speaking to it. “Archie,” she began. A black line appeared in the middle of the panel and quivered with the vibration of a slightly monotone male voice.
“Siyada. How may I be of service?”
Asher stood by in a stupor. A talking light-up wall might in fact have been the most outlandish thing he had seen yet.
“Actually, I came here to help my friend Asher. I’m sure you know of him. He just arrived at the Archives and is seeking answers. I thought of none better than you to supply him with knowledge.”
“Yes. Asher, knight of the Gholarian realm. Valiant, determined... one-dimensional. Hello.”
Our hero remained paralyzed in confusion, and yes-- even a bit of fear. Siyada placed her hand on his shoulder and guided his steps closer to the screen. “Say hello,” she said confidently.
“H-hello,” Asher half-whispered. It seemed he had abruptly forgotten many of his questions, and yet, he had never wanted the answers more.
“What is it you would like to know, sir?” Archie asked cordially.
Asher shook his head, mustering up the courage to pose his most preponderant questions first. “How do I return to Gholaire? How do I save Princess Arabella? Where may I find the keys to my destiny?”
Archie responded without missing a beat. “You cannot. You will not. And your destiny, Sir Asher, is classified.”
“But there must be a way!” Asher demanded, tempted to pound on the screen, yet too timid to touch it. “You must a have a clue. A map, perhaps? What information do you have on my story?”
“I believe I have all the information on your story, Asher. As much as is written. Your story was written in a series of journal entries, and it has no title.” The screen flashed and displayed scribbles of hand-written words upon lined pages. There were a handful of doodled illustrations in the margins. “I even have some of the notes made in planning the story. But that does not mean you will return to Gholaire. All of the characters in the Archives are no longer being written for. Their stories, their development-- it is incomplete, yet it has terminated. And I am a steward of these words. A story-keeper.”
“I told you, Asher.” Siyada interjected. “You can’t escape this place. But you can try to make the best of--”
Asher cut her words short with his own. “Explain further, Archie. I want to know all about this place. How it works and where it ends. Teach me.”
“Much of that information is classified, Asher. But I will tell you some of what you would like to know. Where shall I begin?”