Each Shelf has a Separate Voice

At the end of the promenade there was a pedestal with a shallow place in the middle that was just a little too deep to be accidental. The pedestal itself was made out of a soft, black stone that crumbled when he touched it and left smudges on his fingers. He wiped long smears onto his khakis, which were already dark enough to give the lie to their name. The light in the room wasn’t so good, not after filtering through a century’s worth of dead leaves and cobwebs and grime, just bright enough to make him think he was seeing more than he really was. He had a couple of candles in his pockets but he was saving those for the long walk back to the sunlight. There were a few places in the tunnels where things got tricky.

The thing he was after floated over the little hollow spot in the pedestal, about the bigness of his thumb and round and shimmering white like a pearl. It spun slightly in the dead air, catching what little light there was and playing it back against the distant ceiling. He squatted down on his heels and eyeballed the thing with a sour twist to his mouth. “I’m wise to your game,” he told it. “I’m wise, me. You’re waiting for me to reach out and try to take the piece of you, yeah. Then you’ll go off. That’s an old game, and I’m wise to that one. But here’s the other side of it. Here there’s nobody to look at you and want you and try to steal you. I’m, what, the first person down in front of you in decades, yeah? And so you’ve been left alone and maybe you’re sick of that by now. Maybe yes, maybe no. But if you come with me, maybe there’ll be new people to try to take a swipe at you, and maybe you can play your little game with them. You play your game with me, though, well, maybe you get me and maybe you don’t. Maybe I get out but you stay in here. What’s the percentage in that game? What do you look to get out of it?”

The thing spun in front of him like a model of the world. Only the light moving across his face let him know that it was turning at all.

He shrugged, and his face tightened up, becoming for an instant a much younger face. “All right. We play your game.” He rapped the thing with a grubby fingernail and its wings unfurled, until the tips just brushed the dark rafters. At the center was a tiny little bead with a slash across it for a mouth. “We play your game,” he said again, and it opened its mouth and sang its note at him, one endless vibrant note the color of a scorcher.