Of course! Asher knew exactly where to start.
“To begin, why is Arabella not here in this strange world? The story stopped for her as well... I can only imagine what she’s still going through, being left in that dreadful tower.”
Archie responded in the matter-of-fact way befitting that of artificial intelligence. “Only principle characters are in the Forsaken Archives. Protagonists. Heroes. They are the heart and soul, the life of their stories, and it is the events surrounding their own lives which are forsaken--forever lost in literary limbo. May I also point out, Sir Asher, the concept that Arabella never existed, even within the confines of your tale?”
“What do you mean?” Asher’s face was reddening, and he grew enraged. The more he found out, the further he seemed from his true love.
“Arabella, while presented as a final goal, as a destination if you will, was never manifested in the story. You never saw her, heard her, or anything of the sort. There was no concrete proof that she was ever there at all.”
“Madness!” Asher spat. “Arabella is more real to me than you will ever be!” A single tear plummeted from his lofty cheekbones as rage gave way to melancholy.
“I would offer you my sympathies, Asher, but I am not programmed to simulate emotions very deeply. I can see that you are upset, and I know that the driving force behind your determination is love.”
Asher’s head was hanging now, his fists gripping and un-gripping, as if to tighten the invisible reins on his wayward feelings. He felt a desperation akin to that of drowning as his heart beat out of control.
“Maybe we should take a break and come back later,” Siyada said as deliberately yet gently as possible, standing just a few paces behind him. “The lights will start to dim soon. It’s like night time for us. Though, seeing as the time doesn’t actually seem to pass here, sleep is optional.”
Asher did not respond immediately, but when he did, his voice was faint. “Three more questions, and then I will leave for the night.”
“Very well,” Siyada agreed.
“What does ‘programmed’ mean, Archie?”
“It is similar, in some ways, to being written. I was made to carry out my purposes here, and that necessitated that I was put together a certain way. My software and hardware were designed very carefully.”
Asher’s brows furrowed beneath his loose chestnut locks. “Who programmed you, then? Was it one of the characters here?”
“The specifics on my programmer’s identity are classified, but I will tell you that I was not programmed by a fictional character.”
Asher noticed the overhead lighting fading quickly throughout the Stacks, so while he wanted to delve further into understanding this ‘programming,’ he made haste with a more superficial question.
“Alright. One last question for tonight. You said only main characters make it to the Archives. So why do Siyada and Rhoric have an entire group of friends here, and I am alone?”
“Siyada could have answered that for you,” Archie began. “She and her posse are what is known in the Archives as a Fanfic Faction. All of the stories from which those characters came are products of incomplete, fan-written fiction based on completed works. Rhoric’s group is based on a video game called Edge of Heaven. Siyada can try to explain to you what a video game is later on, if you wish to know. While all members are main characters of their own works, they have much common ground. Rhoric is the ringleader for the simple fact that he has the most dominant personality.”
Asher took a moment to wrap his head around this new information, then readied himself to leave. “I suppose I should thank you, though I did not like your answers, Archie. I will return on the morrow.”
“Of course,” Archie said before the screen reverted to black.
The artificial night fell wholly upon the Archives in the same moment.
“Don’t worry,” Siyada interpreted the concern on our hero's face. “I’ll still know my way back to Rhoric in the dark. I have excellent night vision,” she said. She proceeded to explain the concept of a video game as best she could to Asher while they retraced their steps through the Stacks.
“And straight ahead is our little slice of Edge of Heaven,” Siyada said. To Asher’s surprise, Rhoric and the gang were found sitting in a circle of beanbag chairs round a small campfire.
“We need more fuel,” Asher could hear one of them say as he approached. Our hero watched in befuddlement as one of the men threw a stack of papers into the fire which he had grabbed from a nearby aisle. Once these began burning, exact duplicates instantly reappeared in their former condition upon the shelves. This place became stranger by the moment.
“Where have you been all day, Siyada? Still wasting time with the foreigner?” Rhoric asked when he saw them, plainly unamused.
“I was introducing Asher to Archie so that he could get some of his questions answered.”
“Ah, Archie. Everyone’s favorite disembodied voice.” Rhoric smirked.
“Hey-y!” Asher heard an offended cry, but knew not from whom it came.
“Oh. My apologies, Draugvin,” Rhoric said. “I didn’t see you there.”
The man who tended the fire snickered.
“Of course you didn’t see me! I’m a disembod--” There it was again.
“It’s an expression,” Rhoric butted in. “Anyway, I hope you’re not planning on letting this man stay with us for the night, Siyada. The stranger doesn’t belong here.”
“But Rhoric!” Siyada objected. “He hasn’t got anywhere else to go, and he’s still having a difficult time with things. Just look at him!”
The gang directed their eyes toward Asher, but he failed to notice, lost in a mental maze of false hopes, gazing at the pages of unfulfilled dreams as they burned.
“I’ve gotta say, Siya, he looks even more pitiful than you after your first day.”
“That’s why I wanted to help him,” she urged. “I know how hard it was, and I know how much better I felt once I understood that there were others here like me. Others who had been through the same things and... who could help me find my place.”
Rhoric could see the concern in her eyes, and it reached the soft spot he had for her in his heart. He admired Siyada, but it had always been difficult for him to express his true feelings to others. And sadly, he seemed doomed to remain this way, a victim of his own story's prose.
“Alright. The foreigner can stay with us tonight. I doubt he’ll be much for conversation, anyway.” He waited a moment to see if Asher would bother to respond or if he was still in a daze. “That’s what I thought.”
Siyada scurried to throw her arms around Rhoric’s neck. “Oh, thank you!”
The bearded viking held a smile for just a moment before it faded away. “As I said, he can stay tonight, but tomorrow, he finds a new place. He’s not from Edge of Heaven, so he doesn’t belong here.”