Hall of Knowledge

Don Jones

 There was a heavy pounding at the Hall's front---well, only---door. "Humph," Izi grumbled. "That almost never happens."

"Someone at the door," Siti called from where she was busy cleaning up after their breakfast.

"Yes, yes," Izi said, glancing around the Hall's single ground-level room. It was clean enough, with their simple beds and a small table tucked off against one of the long side walls. Minimal dust on the floor. He stumped over to the enormous door and pressed the button to open it. The door---in reality, a long series of thick duranium blocks---opened in pieces. The first and third pieces, each a meter thick, rose into the ceiling. The second and final pieces, also a meter thick, sank deep into the floor. Izi trundled down the resulting four-meter hallway to greet their new guests.

Izi had to lean back to see the being who'd pounded on the nigh-invulnerable door. It dwarfed Izi's own diminutive, meter-high frame, standing at least thrice that height. It was clad in some form of battered black battle armor, indicators and such blinking away here and there across its form. It stood directly where the Hall's designers had intended: an intricate inlaid pattern just in front of the entryway. Arrayed behind the being was what must have been an entire company of battle-armored soldiers. It declined its head to stare down at Izi's short, squat, grey-skinned form. Izi scratched his bald head, and decided to get on with it.

"Welcome to the Hall of Human Knowledge," Izi said formally, as he'd been taught to do. "You are welcome here, if peace is your intent." He paused. "Fortunately, you're standing in the correct spot," he added as an aside.

"What--?" the being said, its voice sharp and metallic through its helmet. Its head then whipped around, obviously responding to the searing-hot wave of heat it felt behind. Izi looked past it at the glowing embers that were all that remained of his company of troops.

"Sorry, but strict rules. One visitor at a time," Izi said, turning and trundling back into the Hall. He waved the visitor to follow. "Right this way," he said. "Right this way."

The visitor likely had to stoop bit, for the entry tunnel stood a bit under three meters in height. About halfway through the tunnel, Izi heard a snapand a sort of crakling noise, and stopped to look back. Their visitor was standing still, its arms halfway raised outward, and it was staring at its battle suit. The suit had gone completely dark.

"Yes, sorry, no electronics inside the Hall. My apologies, right this way," Izi said, turning around and resuming his journey. After a moment, he could hear the visitor thudding along behind him. Whatever motivated the suit was not entirely electronic, then.

Once they emerged into the main hall, the being could stand up fully. The Hall's ceiling soared overhead, easily five meters up. The walls were unbroken by openings, and the only light came from an even, orange-glowing set of strips that were embedded about halfway up the walls, running the entire perimeter of the Hall.

Izi led their visitor about halfway into the Hall, where the Wheel sat embedded in the floor. The Hall had few features: the light strips, the Wheel, and the Doors were all the Builders had designed. Izi and Siti's beds were later additions. He caught the visitor staring at the beds and felt obliged to apologize. "Er, sorry about those," he said. "We've each a room upstairs, but they're just across from the terrace," he added, pointing up at the ceiling, "and they get really drafty. It's just warmer down here. We have to carry our meals down, and the leftovers back up, but I suppose it gives us a bit of exercise." He finished and gave a slight nod, glad that was out of the way. "Now," he said, rubbing his small hands together and looking up at their visitor, "what can I do for you?"

"What happened to my suit?" it asked, its voice still a chilling, metallic grating issuing from its helmet.

"As I said, no electronics of any kind inside the Hall," Izi said. "Sorry. But you can still move?"

"The hydraulics can operate in a backup mode for a limited time," it said. "Will it be restored when I leave?"

"Um, not usually, no?" Izi said, putting a bit of a question into the tone of his voice. "We don't get many visitors, I'm afraid."

"That's because this planetoid moves from system to system somehow," the visitor snarled. "It's impossible to find."

"Er, yes," Izi said, nodding in acknowledgement. "The Builders, I must admit, didn't want many visitors. This is the Hall of Human Knowledge. I think they were being a bit protective."

"This Hall contains the sum of the knowledge of the lost Human race?" the visitor asked, a tone of demand in its voice. "All of their achievements, all of their science? All of their technology, their weapons, their power? All of it?"

Izi nodded. "Along with poetry, philosophy, some wonderful fiction I'm told, yes, all of it. As well as their history. Their failures. Their destruction."

"Have you read it?"

"Some of it," Izi said, his head bobbing on his short, thick neck. "But it was a long time ago. I don't really remember much. I don't need to. I just help keep the place clean, and greet... well, you."

The being bent almost double so that it could put is still-armored face close to Izi's. "Where?" it hissed.

"Down there," Izi said, unperturbed. He half-turned, and pointed down the Hall. Exactly opposite the entry door was another door of the same shape and size, still sealed by enormous blocks.

"Open it," the visitor said.

"I can't," Izi said, pointing to the Wheel. "I'm nowhere near strong enough anymore."

"Open it," the visitor said, "or I'll have my ship destroy this Hall and this entire planetoid."

Izi shook his head. "You have no means of communicating with your ship right now anyway. And the entire planetoid, including the Hall, is made from cast and forged duraniam. Nothing even the Humans made could scratch this place, let alone whatever you and your ship have. And, any attempt to fire on it will simply trigger the displacement drive, and we'll pop off to some random system somewhere else in the galaxy." Izi had seen that happen more than once over the years. From what he could tell, most people visiting the Hall preferred shooting first rather than knocking politely on the door, and Izi had lost track of the number of systems they'd been in. Not that it mattered: the Hall was completely self-sufficient for Siti and himself. "But," Izi offered, holding up one finger. "You're welcome to open it yourself."

"What? How?" the visitor asked.

"The Wheel," Izi said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

The Wheel was embedded slightly more than halfway into the floor, its hub buried out of sight. Even so, what was visible above the floor was huge, in keeping with the oversized scale of the Hall. The visible portion was over three meters across, and rose a significant height out of the floor. It was perhaps a third of a meter thick. Like the rest of the Hall, it was made from a rough-hewn, metallic substance. Poorly made, by some aesthetics, with pits and chipped edges visible everywhere.

"See the arrow?” Izi said, drawing the visitor's attention to the bottom edge of the Wheel, just where it disappeared into its slot in the floor. A pair of white arrows were inscribed on either side of the wheel, just above floor level, pointing back to the door the visitor had entered through. "You just have to turn the wheel so that the arrows point there," he said, pointing to the door on the far side of the Hall.

"What are those stairs?" the visitor asked, nodding toward the dimly lit staircases that sat on either side of the closed-off entrance on the far side of the Hall. The openings to the stairways were half the height of the sealed central door.

"Oh, those are ours. They both go up," Izi said easily. "I think they liked the symmetry, but one set would really have been fine. But they lead to the upper terrace, our rooms---where we're supposed to sleep," he added, "and our little dining area."

"Show me," the visitor said.

Izi shrugged. "Help yourself," he said, gesturing to the stairs. "Nothing stopping you."

Izi remained at the Wheel while the visitor strode toward the openings. It had to hunch itself over and basically crawl up the stairs. It entered on the left side, and after several minutes of clanking and scraping sounds, emerged from the right side and unfolded itself back to full height. "There's nothing there," it boomed.

Siti, still standing near their beds, put a palm to her wrinkled gray-skinned face and shook her head.

"No, there wouldn't be," Izi called back, thankful for the Hall's echoes to carry his small voice. "It's just for us, you see. It won't admit you. You're really," he added, pointing to the Wheel, "meant to turn this and open the Repository door, not go poking around the caretakers' quarters."

The visitor strode back to the wheel in a few distance-devouring steps. "Where does the door lead?" it asked.

"Down," Izi replied. "The main Repository is about a third of the way down to the planetoid's core, which is where all the machinery and drive mechanisms and energy systems are. You have to turn the Wheel," he repeated, more slowly this time, in case the visitor wasn't quick on the uptake, "to open the door, and then you can go down."

"It's a trap," the visitor said bluntly.

"It's where the Repository is," Izi said with another shrug, "but you can leave if you want to," he added, pointing to the still-open entry door. "Nobody's stopping you. In fact, I'll just go sit down over there," he said, pointing to the small table and two chairs he and Siti had brought down from upstairs. "You can let me know what you decide." He walked over and sat. Siti sat next to him, and gave him a questioning look. "I don't know," he muttered. "It shouldn't be that hard to figure out. The Builders made it pretty easy."

The visitor stared at the Wheel for a while, with occasional glances at the massive door and the hallway it had entered through. After ten minutes or so, it walked to the entry side of the Wheel, straddling it with one foot beside each of the arrows. It placed its gauntleted hands on either side of the wheel, squeezing mightily, and pushed. The Wheel moved, but it moved slowly. Izi and Siti could judge its progress by the movement of the white arrows, and the visitor was able to move them only a dozen or so centimeters at a time before it had to stop and rest for a moment. But it persevered, and the arrow gradually rose to point directly at the ceiling.

SLAM!

Izi and Siti, prepared for it, didn't move from their chairs. But the visitor leapt to the size and landed in a crouch, facing the door it had entered through. A door that was now completely sealed, its massive duranium blocks firmly back in place.

"You have to keep turning," Izi called, "to open the other one," he said, pointing to the still-closed door at the far end of the hall. "After that, you can turn it back to re-open the first one. Only one opening at a time," he added. "For security, I expect."

The visitor stared at them wordlessly for a moment, and then resumed its place on the Wheel. It pressed and pushed, and eventually the white arrows pointed directly at the other door. With a grinding and shrieking that prompted Izi and Siti to cover their ears, the door laboriously opened. Like the outer entry, this too consisted of four two-meter blocks, half of which sunk into the floor and half of which rose into the ceiling.

"You did it!" Izi cried joyfully. So few did. "It's all yours. Stay as long as you want. There are actually food dispensers down there, and there should be a small pallet you can lay on if you need a break. We'll be waiting up here when you're done. Oh, and you may want to take the armor off. If you can, that is. It's a little cramped down there, is all."

Again, the visitor stared at them for several moments. It walked to within a meter of the entryway, and stood still. Snapping noises, followed by billows of fog, issued from the suit and temporarily obscured it. When the fog cleared, what appeared to be a man stood in front of the suit, panting heavily. "I had to use the emergency releases," he said. "I don't know how I'll get it sealed back up again," he added.

"Are you... Human?" Siti asked quietly. The man was far shorter than the enormous armor he'd stepped out of, perhaps a meter and a half tall, Siti judged. Two meters at the most, although he still loomed over the diminutive caretakers. He'd be far more comfortable in the Repository without that armor, from what she remembered of the place. Her dim, fuzzy memories always painted the place as cramped and tiny.

The man shook his head, sweaty hair flopping back and forth. "Not quite. I'm one of the crossbreeds. Quarter Human, maybe, the rest Vanantii." He looked up at them. "I've come to reclaim our heritage, and destroy our oppressors."

"Well, off you go," Izi said, waving to the now-open doors. "All yours."

The man paused. "Seriously?"

"Yes, seriously," Izi said with a small snort of exasperation. "The Humans wanted their many discoveries, their art, their stories, their everything to survive their end. The knew their successors would try and rise again one day, and they wanted their children to have free access to everything they knew. And their stories," he added. "Do take the time to read the stories. Anyway, go for it," Izi finished. "Siti, almost lunch time?"

"It's close enough," she said. "I'll get it this time," she added, heaving herself out of her chair and waddling to the stairway next to the Repository door.

"See you---you know, whenever," Izi said. "I'll help, Siti," he added, rising and scurrying behind her. "Maybe we should just eat upstairs today," he muttered, receiving a hurried nod from her.

Shaking his head in confusion, the man entered the Repository.

With no exterior light in the Hall---and if there had been, it would have been pointless, given the planetoid's random journey throughout the galaxy---Izi and Siti measured their days by when they had breakfast. Breakfast was the first meal of any day, followed by lunch and then by dinner, which was followed by sleeping. The hours between were taken up mainly with dusting and sweeping, and with indescribable amounts of boredom. The two had long ago ran out of anything to talk about, and the Hall itself offered absolutely nothing in terms of entertainment or distraction. Their own hunger was their only clock.

According to those clocks, the man emerged from the Repository eighty days later.

"Where is my armor?" were his first words, startling Izi and Siti, both of whom had been making their beds with their backs to the Repository entrance.

"Oh, we disassembled what bits we could and hauled it all up to the terrace," Izi said cheerfully, after he'd recovered from his start. "We're charged with keeping the Hall clean, you see. Did you enjoy everything in the Repository?"

"It's... it's amazing," he said, seeming nonplussed by his armor's absence. Izi felt his skin looked a bit gray, maybe a bit more wrinkly. "But there's so much of it. And it's all bolted down. I couldn't move any of the reading machines. How do you get any of it out of here?"

"Oh, no, no. My, no," Izi said sternly. "Nothing leaves the Repository. You take out whatever you can put into your own head," he said, pointing toward the man's skull. A skull which, if Izi was being honest, was a tiny bit closer to his own than it had been eighty days ago, as if the past weeks had shrunk him a little.

“How are we supposed to rise again if we can only take what we remembered?” The man’s voice sounded tired, Izi thought.

“We’re not sure they actually meant all that,” Siti sighed. “Do you know how they ended, the original Humans?”

The man shook his head.

“They destroyed themselves. Didn’t you read the stories?” Siti sounded slightly cross.

“No, I---"

“It doesn’t matter.” She sighed, and looked at the steps leading down into the Repository. “I don’t need to read them again,” she added softly, as if convincing herself. “Izi?”

“Certainly not.”

"I need my armor," the man said. "I've got to go."

"Hmm. Well, let's close the Repository for now, if you're done," Izi said, walking over to the Wheel.

"I can re-open it later?" the man asked.

"If you can," Izi muttered. He placed one hand on the Wheel's flat upper surface and gave a light shove. The Wheel spun rapidly back to its original position, the Repository entrance slamming shut. The entryway stayed shut.

"How-- how did you do that?" the man said, staring with his jaw open.

"Oh, closing it is easy," Izi said. "Now look, I should show you something. Follow me." He walked to the far side of the Hall and pressed the button that---with the Wheel pointing this way---opened the entrance. The four blocks ground into their open position. "It's safe in the hallway," Izi added as he walked through. "Keeps the same atmosphere as inside."

The man followed him to the end of the hall, and stared at the inlaid design where he'd first knocked on the Hall's door. Then, he raised his eyes---to a completely different starscape. Whereas the previous one had been fairly empty and frankly a little boring, this one was filled with lights, and colors, and swaths of nebulae. "This isn't... where's my ship?" he asked.

"Wherever you left it," Izi said. "Turning the wheel to open the Repository engages the displacement drive. We've moved. No telling where," he said with a sigh. "But there's something else you should see."

They walked back into the main Hall and Izi led the man to the staircases. "Come up," Izi said. "Siti's already up there." Neither the man nor Izi had to lower their heads at all as they made their way up the stairs. At the top, they found a small opening, just their size, that the man assumed he had missed on his last trip this way. Izi stepped through, and the man followed him.

"This is where food comes in," Izi said, gesturing to a slot on the door beside them. "My room is on the other side, and there's another room that way," he said, waving the opposite direction. "And that's the terrace," Izi added.

In front of them was a vast open space---the roof of the main Hall, the man realized. His armor, half-dismantled, was lying out there. Siti was standing next to the pile of equipment. He made to step toward her, but Izi held him back by a forearm. The man looked, and realized that he and Izi were the same height.

"It holds an atmosphere until we jump again," Izi said, "at which point anything out there will be sucked into the void or something."

"But she---" the man pointed.

"What's your name?" Izi asked softly.

The man paused for a moment before answering, "Sh'taun," he said.

"Siti was oldest here," Izi said softly. "The Hall calls for two, and now her time is done. She's earned her peace. I'll show you around, show you how the Hall works, show you your duties. Jumping is especially beautiful," he added, pressing a button on the wall.

It was beautiful. Space outside lit up with colors that swirled and danced for several moments. When the colors faded, they were once again staring at a cool, black, almost starless sky. The terrace was empty.

"When the next visitor comes," Izi said, turning and walking back down the stairs to the main Hall, "you'll greet them, as I greeted you. And then I'll stand on the terrace while you push that button."

"When will that be?" Sh'taun asked quietly. All his urgency had somehow drained away.

"Who knows? It could be tomorrow. But between the time I came to the Repository, and the time you arrived, I can tell you is that it was many, many thousands of breakfasts."