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Ernie Aloft IV: The Plot Thickens

The catlets galloped across the deck. Rennie greeted everyone cheerfully so it was clear it was just a couple of kittens skylarking, no emergency here, no siree. Ernie took her back to the spot where he had overheard the two men. There wasn't enough scent for Rennie to really taste. But there was something. "What IS that?" She asked him. Ernie shook his head. Rennie led the way aft and they began scouting, section by section.

It was a big ship. After three hours, they'd stopped for a break and tried to find a more efficient search pattern, but ended up sticking with Plan A. One trace in the laundry, and another near the gaming center, both fugitive. Then they got a hit on the way out of the mess hall. Ernie was practically dancing, waiting for Rennie to finish all her socializing. But if she didn't visit with people, it would be noticed. She finally skipped out, tail waving, and caught up with him.

The scent was fairly fresh, still very odd and hard to focus on. But it was strengthening. They were on the right track. They slowed to a brisk trot and wound up a ladder, through two compartments, and up towards the nose of the ship. The doors to the Library were closed, but the scent led in. Rennie rang for admittance, and the doors slid open. The cats froze.

The Librarian stood over the bodies of two men. The odd scent lingered, but the coppery jolt of blood stood out. "Are these yours?" she inquired of the cats.

Rennie finally shrugged; Ernie had no answer. "Ah," said the Librarian. "This has to do with you two taking off earlier, yes?" Rennie nodded. "Friend or foe? Foe, I suspect. Well, let's be about it."

She locked the doors. The Librarian snapped a pair of gloves over her hands and picked up a dispenser of alcohol wipes. She stepped over the first man and extracted a long brass rod from his ear. Both ears, actually. She very carefully cleaned the rod, laid it on the desk, and then withdrew its mate from the other man's eye socket. Once both rods were clean, and carefully inspected, she carried them over to a large oak cabinet and threaded them back through the cards, tightening the screws with her fingers. "Now, then."

She stepped back to the corpses and began searching them, thoroughly and efficiently. A small pile of objects collected on the desk. "No tattoos, no interesting scars, no dental work. I don't recognize them, do you, Rennie?" Rennie shook her head, and Ernie did too.

The Librarian sat and began examining her loot. There was a small book, leather-bound. "Cheap work, likely a souvenir," opined the expert. "It's a Koran, of course, but quite run-of-the-mill. And when I fan the pages, no evidence of particular passages being frequently consulted. No wear on the back of their shoes. It's a disguise. Neither of them are Saracen." She turned to the handwritten notes inside the left cover.

"Now this is quite interesting. Written in an archaic Arabic script, but not flowing. Not someone accustomed to writing it, certainly not accustomed to writing right to left. Clumsy work. And it's...hmm. Saracen script but not language, it's Muscovite, and about as inelegant as the script. Ottomani used to be written in Saracen characters until the modernization movement, but I can't think of any reason why Muscovite would be. Which makes it a method of conveying secrets." She picked up the phone and called the Captain.

The cats listened, puzzled, as she chatted airily about a passage she'd found that the Captain might find quite motivational, and perhaps XO could stop by the Library this evening, after dinner? Splendid, splendid.

She hung up and began grilling the cats about the men and the hunt. She nodded when they described their frustration, these two unknown men roaming their ship and nobody noticing. "One of them had a nosimi. Here, this knobby thing on the thong. It's a charm. Very effective, too." Harry frowned and tipped his head in inquiry.

The Librarian put a clear crystal container on the desk, and sealed the trinket inside. Then she slid her hands into the two built-in gloves, and used a tiny blade and tweezers to open the object. A bit of brown powder spilled out. "Asa foetida, mixed with a mild hallucinogen. The mechanical part disperses the drug while producing a subconscious buzzing noise. Between the bad smell, the annoying buzz, and the high, all of it quite subtle, people seek to avoid it, and the person carrying it. Hence the nose filters these two wore. The No See Me charm dates back a good bit, but of course modern engineering has made it smaller and more effective. Most people just don't think to combine herbal knowledge with spycraft. Again, an odd combination."

The door slid open and XO walked in, replacing his override card in his sleeve. "Came as soon as I could," he told the Librarian. "I see you've been busy. Again." She winked at him, and then caught him up on their discoveries.

"It would have been nice if they had answered some questions before you killed them," XO said in a patient voice that suggested this conversation had occurred, previously, on multiple occasions.

The Librarian smiled. "They demanded access to the restricted section. And they threatened me, and waved an incendiary at me. Was I supposed to let them into the cage, or let the Library burn?" The cats and the Captain looked about anxiously for an explosive device, and the Librarian laughed at them in her rich voice. "I scuttled it. Boss, you really should have a little faith. I'm an information professional, I can tell when someone is not going to be forthcoming,"

Captain XO waved a repressing hand at her. "Do you know what they were after? We still haven't figured out why they are sending us to these particular coordinates. I could use a hint, just once in a while."

No hints were forthcoming, but the Librarian agreed to continue research into the notebook and the "shopping list" of books one man had tucked into his shoe. The cats were praised, and cautioned again about secrecy. The Captain gave them each some chin rubs, and sent them about their regular duties. The Librarian looked rather sadly at the silk carpet, and called Janitorial, requesting "clean-up on aisle five, cold storage." Then she scrubbed her corsair boots and leather pants free of debris, tidied her hair, broke out the good gin, propped her heels up on the massive oak table, and began reading.

The Renegade moved on through the sky, following the faint transmissions of the Bellerophon. The older dirigible had been an occasional adversary, but a worthy one. Its Captain was respected and, on visits, an amiable companion. Now his ship was in unknown winds, and the Renegade was doing its best to locate and rescue the Belle and her crew.

XO gazed, unseeing, out the bridge viewport. They had coordinates, but "adjusted" by the mysterious intruders. Someone wanted the Renegade there. Likely an enemy. But they had gone to a great deal of trouble to sneak aboard his ship. And to steal an armful of books. Rare books, to be sure, but the Librarian had reported no significant connection between the titles. One was extremely valuable, the others not. Different authors, publishers, languages. Different binding techniques. The only thing she had not yet been able to verify was ownership. Past ownership, that is. The Renegade had "acquired" the volumes on three different raids. It was possible that all the books had once belonged to the same owner. But who, and why would that matter? How important could provenance be in this case? The Librarian didn't know. Yet.

The Captain didn't have much choice. The Bellerophon had fallen through some kind of dimensional gate. The Renegade had problematic coordinates, but they couldn't confirm. The Belle had been damaged by a series of attacks. The Belles were too busy trying to survive to help the Renegade retrace their accidental transit.

The Renegade would have to use the coordinates they had. But when they started their own transit, XO would see to it that every fighter was armed and ready. Trap or not, they had to make the jump as planned. Two days to finish the portal gun.

The next day, Rennie completed her watch on the bridge, submitted her homework and reports, got a quick snack, and dutifully headed for the Library. She settled herself in the corner of the work table and waited for the Librarian to finish her current task. A different carpet lay on the floor. This one intentionally had deep reddish hues.

Rennie would have preferred to be elsewhere, but she had, evidently, not yet paid her dues for the Unfortunate Incident. If anyone had bothered to inquire, she would have assured them that she had felt much remorse and guilt and it wouldn't happen again, really. No one asked. So here she sat.

The Librarian pulled the big wooden frame off the shelf and set it on the work table. "Just about finished sewing the text block," she reminded Rennie. "It can be quite slow work." Rennie thought it prudent not to mention that she had noticed the pace.

Two more signatures, and the text was sewn back together. The meticulous skill of the Librarian had rendered any trimming unnecessary. "Now the fun part," she said, choosing silks for the headband. It was, actually, quite beautiful to see the shimmering threads form a beautiful pattern. Rennie wondered if it felt as smooth as it looked, but her paws remained carefully tucked away.

Who would have thought there was so much work to make a book? Or rather, remake a book. She'd sat through the disassembly, watched the Librarian sever the threads and extract the folded pages, seen them carefully washed and dried, then neatly pressed. Rennie herself had been tasked with going through the reassembled pile of sheets. It had been jarring to find some upside down, and some out of order. The Librarian had nodded approval when the corrected arrangement had passed inspection. The freshly marbled endsheets were added, fore and aft. "You might enjoy marbling, or at least paste papers," remarked the Librarian. "Next time I set up a water-based session, I'll show you how it's done. Paws might produce excellent patterns."

Then the big sewing frame had been set up, and one by one, the gatherings had been fixed back into place with thread. The task had been interrupted when the Librarian suddenly stopped working, peered hard at the sewn structure, and said, "Hmm."

She'd gotten up, opened one of the locked cabinets, and pulled out a small stack of books. Peered very closely at the sewing structure, using the magnifying goggles. "Hah," she said. And without explanation, resumed sewing the book on the frame.

Before dismissing Rennie for the day, the Librarian enumerated all the steps yet to take. The joy of rebuilding a case was evidently, going to be shared. Rennie nodded, a little sadly. All this, from that.

It had been a peaceful evening. The ship was quiet, there were no crises, they were heading back to the castle for a bit of down time. Rennie was meatloafed on the Captain's lap. He was enjoying a nip of some of the finer local Wick spirits, and reading aloud to her from a newly acquired sixteenth century book on fortifications. It had been quite interesting, and she had enjoyed the book. Then.

Apparently his melodious voice, or the lateness of the hour, or the comfort of his presence, had lulled her a bit. When he said "attack!" with some vigor, she had snapped to full awareness. Claws had been involved. Spirits had been splashed. On the book.

The Captain had eventually risen, holding Rennie in one hand and the sodden book in the other, and carried them down to display to the Librarian. It was a teachable moment, agreed the humans. It was an overreaction to a brief nap and he had said "attack!", thought the despondent catlet.

Sixteen days later he had finally invited her back to his lap. They had simply listened to music, and she had stayed very much awake. That had been a month ago. She was learning, though. She had thought librarians simply sat around, waiting for someone to need a book. Now Rennie was struggling to understand the Concept of the Work, and the highly uncertain system behind Library of Congress subject headings. When the next batch of loot arrived, she was going to "experience the pleasant mental exercise" of assessment and acquisition. The Librarian had endorsed the creation of keyboards designed for paws, as Rennie could then encode a finding aide. It was all an odd mix of the imposition of order, with acknowledgment and celebration of the unique. Rennie was never going to become a librarian, but there was something fascinating about managing knowledge across centuries. Millennia. She was thinking about navigation in a new light. She was really looking forward to some quiet time so she could read more about astronomy and the development of navigation tools.

Quiet time on the Renegade was getting very hard to come by.

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