The Wandering Library

“If you don’t tell me where the library is, I’m gonna shoot you in the head.” Azalee cocked her shotgun and leveled it at the man’s face. Her stance was menacing, but her tone was bored. Of all the damn bounties, why had she been assigned a damn library? Road warriors were supposed to take down fleeing targets. The thrill was in the chase, after all. Libraries stood still. Could anything be more boring?

The man stared up at her defiantly, though. “You’ll never find it. It’s lost, lost, lost.” He laughed, then—a manic sound.

Azalee raised an eyebrow. “I know it’s lost, old man. Why you think I’m harassing you? Tell me where it is.” She was getting nowhere with this old crazy bastard, though. He wasn’t properly motivated. Surely there was a life other than his own he valued more.

She fired the rifle into the ceiling. The old man flinched as dust powdered his face, but it was the squeak from the cupboard that Azalee had needed. She gave the man a wicked smile and turned the rifle on the cupboard.

“No!” he yelled. “No, please! I don’t know, all right? Nobody knows where the library is. It’s lost. It’s been lost since the End of Days. I swear it!”

“Come on, gramps. Gotta give me something to go on, here. Word on the road is you know a thing or two about it.”

The old man darted a look to his hidden whoever and licked his lips. “I know a thing or two. But it’s not enough, ok? The library moves. It’s the only way to keep it safe. Keep it hidden. Any time anyone thinks they’ve tracked it down, it’s gone again. Moved on. It’s how it’s stayed lost for all these years.”

The man blinked rapidly as Azalee lowered her rifle.

“That a fact?”

He nodded, arms raised before him as he nodded.

“A wandering library. Interesting.” Perhaps this bounty wouldn’t be so boring after all.

She popped the shell from the gun, catching it in midair. “You tell me what you know about where it’s been, ya? And you and your cupboard can live.”

#

Most bounty hunters would have been put off by the information that the library was even more impossible to find than originally supposed. Not Azalee. It had now become like any other prey. Something she had to track down and chase. This was a most excellent turn of events. Like any great predator, sniffing out prey and tracking it to its bolt hole was what she did best.

The old man had been able to tell her where it had been found once, and from there, Azalee was able to nail down two other locations. From there, things got murky. It didn’t seem to follow any sort of pattern. So it wasn’t on a track. Did it have a mind of its own, and therefore was able to act unpredictably? She had heard of AIs being able to do that.

But AI—or even human intelligence—eventually followed some sort of pattern. She just had to keep poking, keep batting at bushes, and sooner or later it would bolt where she could follow.

The more Azalee poked, though, the more she kept coming back to the old man in her mind. His information had been good—it had been confirmed that the library did, in fact, roam. And he had told her the previously known location. But all lines pointed back to him.

He knew where the library currently was. Somehow, he’d lied to her and she’d missed it.

Finding him again was tough, but not impossible.

Even humans follow patterns.

He didn’t seem surprised to see her again.

“I don’t know where it is, now,” was all he said. The look in his eye was resigned.

“But you did know. When I found you last.”

He nodded. “Go ahead. I know what your kind does.”

She didn’t shoot him right away. She made sure he wasn’t hiding anything else, first. It only took a couple of hours.

In the end, her suspicion was confirmed. Whoever had been hiding in the cabinet knew where the library was.

#

It didn’t take Azalee long to find out that the old man had been hiding a little girl. Her parents had been tortured and murdered by road warriors at one point, too. But they had been guardians of the library. So they knew where it was.

Azalee had a feeling that they’d left the location with their little girl.

You could throw a rock in any city and hit a little girl without parents, but despite that, she wouldn’t be hard to find.

All Azalee had to do was spread the word about the old man and wait. It only took the little girl three days to find her.

The girl was smart. She waited for Azalee to be alone in a blind alley in the dark. But she was untrained and slight statured. Azalee easily disarmed and captured her.

In the light, she was a negative image of Azalee herself. Her skin was the same color as the sand and her hair bleached white from the sun. She couldn’t have been more than ten, but her eyes looked older than her years.

“Go ahead and kill me. I won’t talk.”

Azalee couldn’t help but smile. “Brave words.”

The girl spat.

“What’s your name?”

The girl stuck her chin out and didn’t speak.

“Let’s start again. I’m Azalee.”

“I know who you are. You’re the terrible bounty hunter who killed my uncle! I hate you. I hope you die a thousand times a thousand. All of the nukes from the End of Days would be too good for you.”

Azalee sighed. It was going to be a long night.

By morning, the girl was still alive, just barely, and true to her word, she hadn’t talked. Not even her own name had she divulged.

“Look, girl, at this point, no doctor is gonna be able to fix what I done to you. If you tell me what I want to know, I’ll put a bullet right in your head. End it quick.”

She shook her head. “Can’t.”

Azalee dropped to her haunches to look the girl in the face. “What can possibly be so important that you’d let yourself suffer this way? It can’t just be about your uncle, if that’s even what he was.”

The girl lifted her head and looked Azalee in the eye. Even after a night of torture, the fire still burned brightly in her eyes. Azalee had not broken her.

“The whole world. What’s left of us. My suffering…” She coughed and spat out blood. “Will save us all.”

“You do know where it is. The library.”

She nodded, and her head lolled to the side.

“Tell me where it is, honey, and this can all be over.”

“You have to promise something.”

This surprised Azalee. “I promise.”

The girl stirred and mustered enough energy to raise her head again. “You can’t promise without knowing what. I know you’re lying.”

Azalee shrugged. “Believe it or not, I do try to grant dying wishes when I can. Reckon it’s the least I can do, after all this.”

The girl blinked and seemed to ponder that for a moment. “My uncle?”

Azalee sighed. “He wanted me to leave you alone. I did, didn’t I? You came to me, after all.”

The girl actually laughed at that, but then coughed so long and so hard that Azalee thought she might not stop until she died.

After a bit, though, she took a shuddering breath and swallowed some of the water Azalee offered her.

“This bounty you are after. It’s the biggest one ever, right?”

Azalee nodded. The bounty was large. Although she had little choice in it. The man in charge of her road warrior clan told them what bounties to chase. They all got a cut, of course, and her cut for the library would be larger than any full bounty she had ever been assigned.

“The money will be worthless if that man gets the library.”

Azalee rolled her eyes. “That’s what they all say. I don’t put much stock in to this end-of-the-world nonsense. World already ended, far as I can see. Ain’t much could make it any worse.”

“He will. The library holds the secrets from the first ending. It’s why he wants it so much. Why we all give up everything to keep it hidden.”

The girl must have realized she was dying, because this was as chatty as she’d been all night.

“What is it you want me to promise, girl? That I won’t give him the library when I find it? That I’ll stop looking before I find it? You ought to know I can’t do none of that.”

She shook her head. “I want you to promise to be the new guardian.”

Azalee frowned. “You’ll tell me where it is if I agree to be its guardian?”

The girl nodded.

“What’s the catch?”

“No catch.”

“You know I’ll just give it up, even as guardian.”

The girl’s eyes slid closed and she didn’t speak for a long time. “You are a terrible, selfish person, Azalee. But I have to have faith that when you take over its guardianship, you will do the right thing. Do you promise?”

Azalee shrugged. “I promise. I’ll become the library’s guardian.”

The girl nodded and smiled. “I knew you would.”

Azalee felt her face wrinkle. “If you were gonna give it up the whole time, why wait so long to tell me?”

“You had to see the depth of my commitment. Surely not even you are untouched by what you’ve done to me.”

This girl was sounding less and less like a ten year old. What was going on?

“That don’t make no sense.”

The girl sighed. “It will.”

“Any road. What I gotta do?”

The girl gestured. “My pocket.”

“I emptied your pockets. I been through everything you own. There weren’t nothing in yer pocket.”

“Check again.”

Azalee frowned and reached forward, putting her hand in the girl’s pocket. Which took her close enough for the girl to wrap her hands around her head. Azalee’s first though was she was going to put her eyes out, but instead, there was a flashing pain, a burst of light, and then…

Knowledge.

The girl was dead at her feet, but the library was now inside of her mind.

“Oh. Oh my word.”

#

Azalee took her time burying the girl. Whose name was Jo Beth, according to the library AI.

The AI went by Eden. They were one consciousness now. It explained why Jo Beth sounded less like a little girl and more like an ancient being, especially the closer to death she had come. It made sense, too, that even though the library jumped from person to person, Azalee had still been able to find the pattern in its movement.

It also explained why Jo Beth had had blind faith that Azalee wouldn’t turn over the library. Eden was as much part of Azalee now as her own consciousness. As guardian, she wasn’t sure she could go against its wishes.

But Jo Beth had also been right. The knowledge contained in the library could never fall into the wrong hands. It would be the end of everything. Turns out, Azalee had some strong feelings about things not ending.

“It’s damn lucky you ended up with me, computer. There ain’t a better road warrior alive.”

“‘There isn’t a better one,’ Azalee. Not ‘ain’t no,'” Eden prompted.

“Lord have mercy, this here’s gonna be a long road ahead, with you yapping in my ear, correcting all my speech.”

“I’m not in your ear, Azalee.”

Azalee didn’t like to think about it that way. Easier to think about the thing being in her ear, not her head. “I hope you ain’t expecting me to change who I am for you.”

There was a long pause before Eden spoke again. “On the contrary. I believe you are right. ‘There ain’t a better road warrior alive.’ I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Azalee gave a nod at that and turned west, wandering into the sunset, with the library on her mind.

Sara is a Kansas-grown author of the fantasy and horror persuasions. She is convinced that fantastical things are waiting for her just around the corner, and until she finds the right corner, she writes about those things instead.

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