by Paula de Carvalho
All rights reserved.
Tarik strolled around the newly re-discovered library’s main room, admiring the erratic rows of shelving units. He could live three lifetimes and never read all that the alien building contained. Why they’d abandoned it, he’d never understand—though at the moment he was more intrigued by the material the tablets were made of. They looked like slabs of sheet metal, but when he ran a finger over the embossed text, it felt like papyrus.
Amber’s voice came through the intercom strapped to his wrist, breaking his train of thought. “Boss?”
“You’ve gotta get outta there. A fire broke out in the east wing, and its spreading like—well, like fire.”
Tarik shook his head, sure he’d misheard. “A what? How?” But even as he spoke, he began to smell it in the air.
“A fire, sir. I think Cady was smoking while she worked. Does it matter? Get out.”
He’d lost a childhood home to fire. He knew how quickly the flames could spread, and how completely they destroyed.
“Copy,” he said.
Tarik reached for the nearest shelf and grabbed tablets from it at random, hugging them to his chest.
Smoke descended from the ceiling, and flames leaped into the room from the east wing, swallowing shelving units whole.
The heat was suffocating—a few minutes more, and the whole room would ignite.
The tablets he’d already grabbed would have to suffice. Tarik sprinted across the room towards the open door, staying as low as he could manage, weaving in and out through the rows.
Flames danced after him, licking at his heels. He could feel his boots melting into his feet. His lungs burned and his eyes watered. The alien tablets grew hot in his arms.
Don’t burn up, he thought, please don’t burn up.
But his plea went unheeded. They grew hotter still, burning through his shirt and searing his flesh.
On instinct, he dropped them and kept running.
Instantly, he regretted it—but he could not turn back.
Tarik darted through the door and into open air. He fell to his hands and knees only a few feet from the entrance, coughing so hard he felt he would vomit. It didn’t help that the scent of his own burnt hair and flesh assaulted his nostrils.
Through bleary eyes, he saw two dark figures—his teammates—approaching him. They lifted him on either side, slinging his arms around their shoulders, and half-dragged him back to the rest of the team, well away from the fire.
When his coughing subsided and his vision cleared, Tarik looked up just in time to see the building collapse.
“Gone,” he said, through choked sobs. “It’s all gone.”
“Well,” Cady said, wincing, “not all of it.”
Only then did Tarik notice the scorching pain on his chest.
He looked down at his naked flesh, scarred with the mirror-image of some alien text—crudely branded, but legible.
And, through the pain, he smiled.