Ordinarily, the Record Keeper must be single, with no family ties or complications. His predecessor was one such person. This apparently healthy, strong, young man was taken by a stroke without warning. (This was happening far too often, these days.) He was only man available with the required skills and training—a single father with a single child, the shining Lisl. Yes, he knows this was in violation of protocol—but the Record Room could not be left unattended and an exception had to be made. So, they pulled him from the university. He pulled Lisl out of school and took her down here with him. It would only be a year until they trained his replacement, so they had told him. But complications had arisen, questions of reliability and a mouth that could not stop talking. His heart sank that day, when duty forced him to tell the dear child that his one year assignment was now two, at least. Lisl looked at him with big blue eyes. I understand, Papa. It is your duty.
And so, he did his duty. The weeks stretched by as they had before. Each day, he closed the steel door and did his work in the Record Room. Lisl played and learned at her computer. And never complained, never broke things, never made trouble or asked to go in the forbidden room. Such a good, obedient child.
What could have been a horror down here, a claustrophobic sentence in a prison underground, was not so. It was the best time of his life, to speak the truth. They had so much fun. The delight she shared when he put her to bed and told her stories.
How Lisl loved his stories. The scarier the better. The oldtales from the Black Forest, yes. Bluebeard, Cinderella, Snow White, yes. Inventions of the folkmind to frighten children to sleep or at least make them stay in their beds. But sometimes, the little tyrant demanded true stories. And these were even more scary.
Tell me about the Undermen, Papa.
“Ah, the Undermen.”
She kept returning to this. She was so smart, this Lisl. Perhaps too smart.
He smiled indulgently, held his hands up and spread them apart, like a balancing scale.
“Once upon a time, there were two races of intelligent beings on this earth.”
He gestured with his right hand.
“One more intelligent that the other.”
“Smart girl. And also, the Undermen.”
The left hand moved.
“We were both, as you should know, hominids—that is the correct term. Upright, tool-using descendents of monkeys with opposable thumbs and sharp minds. Ours were sharper. Theirs were crueler.”
“I know about evolution, Papa.”
“Good girl. You surely also know of the brutal law of survival of the fittest. These two species did not live in peace. These others, the Undermen, were jealous of our strength and intelligence, and did not leave us alone. You know what they did?”
“They tried to wipe out all the human beings, Papa.”
“Yes. The ugly word for that is genocide. They tried to kill us, but we fought back. It was a terrible war. The atomics were used, hmm? At the end, the Undermen were all destroyed. Their cities, their bodies, their books, their entire civilization. Nothing was left, you see. No bones, no artifacts. Today, we have only human memory and reconstructions based on stories. But the Undermen were our enemies, of course. Perhaps the stories were exaggerated, hmm?”
Too late the idiocy escaped his mouth. This should not have been said. He had gone too far.
“But I have seen the bones, papa. ”
“The bones in museums!”
“They are plastic.”
“These are the reconstructions, hmm?”
“No. I know the Undermen in dioramas are not real, but—”
“The bones, too.”
“The skeletons? The skeletons are plastic?”
“Yes. Extrusions of polymeric calcium created in fabricators.”
“Do not look so shocked. You are such a moral child.”
“They are fakes!”
“Tssk, no Lisl. No, no …”
“Calm down! The bones are plastic, yes. Are they fakes, no. For this is known that they are plastic, this is not a secret. We are not tricking the people, hmm? All the plastic bones in the museums, they might as well be dragons and elves, from a scientific perspective. Mere guesswork based on legends. These are placeholders, this is acknowledged. Next to each display, there are always cards.”
“But—if these things are not true, why do we put them in museums?”
“Well, to fill the gap of human memory.”
“Well, because there is a gap and people do not like gaps. A story with a hole in it is very bad, hmm? Would you like me to tell such a story?”
“No, papa.” Big blue eyes. “Are there many missing pages?”
“We have nothing?”
“No. Not exactly. I—that is to say we. We have …”
He’d let it slip.
“There are pieces, yes. The records are very fragmentary, you see. One day we will put the story together … but not today.”
She looked at him. Those big blue eyes.
“You have the fragments. That is your job. You are putting the story together!”
“No, no, no …Lisl.”
“We are keepers of the records!”
“No. I am the keeper of the records. You are a little girl.”
With an IQ of 159.
“But I help you!”
“You help me by being yourself. But you must never go in the room.”
“The Record Room!”
Damnit. She’d figured out the name.
“Whatever you call it, do not…I forbid you to go in there! Ever!”
“I know Papa…”
This was too much. The emotion was inappropriate.
“I am sorry for shouting, but …”
Lisl choked back a sob.
“I know, Papa. I must not go in there. Ever.”
“Yes, that is a good girl, yes.”
He tried to walk away.
“But Papa …”
“Good night, Lisl.”
He stopped, turned and forced himself to smile.
“Lisl, please. It is late and much work remains for me to do.”
She is not so good, hmm?
“Just one more question. Please?”
These damned questions. Just one more damned question.
“Why are the records secret? Why can’t you put them together now?”
“Ah, now it is impossible. We have only dust and ash in special glass cases sealed from light or air. Our computers are not so good that they can decode these fragments, hmm? It is speculated that one day … the scientists are working on it. It is called quantum computing or something. This is still only a dream.”
“And … you are the caretaker for the Record Keeper of the future who will have this machine?”
Just one more question. And then one more …
“Yes, yes, that was my point.”
“So … you are not putting the story together?”
And another goddamned question.
“No, no, no.”
“Then what are you doing in there?”
“Mostly, um, I make sure the records are safe. I am of course busy, um, scanning the fragments with an electron microscope for the Record Keeper of the future.”
“The records are very fragile. They must never be disturbed. I have very special training, so I … this allows me to do my work without disturbing them. But you do not have such training. So, you must never go in that room, hmmm? That is why, you see. You are an intelligent girl. You deserve to know why.”
Or at least a believable lie.
I am sorry. I did not mean to shout before. Play with your dolls and … I shall do my work. We shall have strudel later. Good night, Lisl.”
“Good night, Papa.”
He entered the Record Room, closed the steel door, and tried to work. He pulled up the goddamned records … hopeless, completely hopeless. Lisl had distracted him, Lisl had thrown him off his carefully arranged track. No work tonight. So, he drank himself into stupor instead. Jaegermeister, hidden inside the console you see. Forbidden, but who’s going to tell? Beyond stupor, there are other dark places. He drank and entered them. Then finally decided to go to his bed chamber.
Staggered up to the door. Palmed it open.
And fell unconscious on the ramp.
Lisl was not a perfect child, let us be clear. Being a perfect child was her job. She was very, very smart. It occurred to her that her life depended on that job. Papa could kill her. Papa was not normal.
Normal Papas don’t take their children underground. Sick ones do. She had read of such men. Papa had never done anything. Never touched her, all those horrible things you read about. But he was up to something else.
She didn’t believe his story of the government, his duty, and all that.
They were all alone. Nobody knew they were down here. Lisl’s computer was cut off from the worldnet. No phone reception, except she thought, a tiny one wired into Papa’s skull he seemed to respond to every now and then. Which didn’t make sense if Papa was just a crazy man all by himself …
Or the vast resources required to keep this place going. That didn’t make sense either. The constantly humming HVAC system, the lights. Electricity was coming in from somewhere. Someone was paying for it.
So, maybe it was the government. The Oneworldstate creating order and prosperity everywhere and soon bringing earthfolk to the stars.
But government could kill you, too. Governments could also be bad.
This was not the work of sunshine and flowers.
We are down below the ground, where corpses make their homes.
Papa, going behind that steel door every day. Locking it shut. What does he do in there? Something with the records.
The hole in human memory. The Undermen, who vanished in the last war.
Men like Trolls. The bogeymen hiding under the bed.
Their story was in there.
It was all in there. But so was he.
But, today, he’d forgotten to lock the door.
She could hear him snoring. Loudly. Inside.
“Are you all right, Papa?”
Lisl pushed the door open. Walked into the room.
The Record Room. She was inside.
In the room she should not be in.
And saw Papa lying there. Flat on his back on the steel inclined plane leading down from the steel door.
She climbed over him and walked inside. Trembling. Expecting to see airtight cases full of dust and ash.
It was a vast, low-ceilinged, dimly lit space, a former salt mine, converted to new use. Papa’s work station was in the front, a bank of monitors on a curved desk that reminded her of an organ at an old cathedral. A few meters beyond that …
Metal stacks filled the volume, arranged in a grid, like the stacks in an old library.
She walked past Papa’s station, into the stacks.
The records were intact, she could easily see. Not dust and ash in airtight glass containers. Newspapers, books, films, and so forth. All in one piece. The actual physical objects. Some contained in glass, some not. Like that, book. She could touch it. She could pull it off the shelf and read it. But she wasn’t stupid. Papa would wear plastic gloves to do that. He throws them away in the defab slot when he comes out. She’d seen it.
But Papa would have scanned these records. Or the man who died before they came here. Or the man before that. How old was this place? The contents of these old books and papers would all be in a computer system, Papa’s system, separate from the worldnet. She could read the contents there. But why was he reading them?
Papa wasn’t an archivist. He was a geneticist.
This also made no sense.
Lisl walked back, glanced at Papa. Still lying on the floor, snoring. Grunting horrible sounds, like an ogre in a story.
She sat down at his station, sitting in his big chair like Goldilocks or an organist sitting down to play. And play she did. Her fingers flashed. Papa’s computer was much like her computer, no biometrics, no password. So, Lisl pulled up files at random. Scanned-in news stories, printed on paper. Old languages. English, French, Russian ... The computer would translate, but she knew most of them.
The story here was very different from the one they told at school.
There had been a war, yes. The Aryan Fathers had won, as history had recorded. But the war had a different name. World War II, not … And the war itself was not the same. The enemy was not the same. The Undermen. They …
Blood pounding in her ears.
Looked fully human. Not the beetlebrowed, troll-like monsters in the dioramas at the museum. Starved, pathetic …
They were people, they were people ...
Tears gushed out of her eyes.
They were people, they were people ...
Tears gushed out of her eyes.
Dying in concentration camps and atomic fire.
Shaking hands. Typed. Pulled up the files Papa was working on.
Loss of genotypic variation.
There were colorful graphics of strangely colored people. Jews, Slavs, Negroes. Names she’d never heard of. Color-coded groups and subgroups, dwindling, vanishing. The records, in fact were all there. Someone had carefully kept them.
We killed them. The hole in the story is a crime.
She had to get out of here.
We killed them all.
She had to get out of here now.
Every last man woman and child. Why?
She got up, but made the mistake of looking back.
Beyond the stacks, there was something else. Glass cases, large enough to fit a human body. Like the ones at the museum …
She had to see.
Heart pounding in her chest, Lisl walked beyond the stacks. To the cases.
Inside, she saw bones. (She knew that’s what she’d see.) Skeletons. Professionally mounted, wearing striped uniforms.
These were not plastic.
Now she really had to get out of here. If her mind would just shut up…
We committed the perfect crime. Why keep the evidence? Why is this stuff here?
Papa. Still snoring.
Lisl stepped over him. Carefully. But she knew it wouldn’t help.
Papa would wake up. Papa would know. Then …
She had read a lot of stories. Papa had told her more.
Lisl knew how this story ends. Papa would appear with a knife, terrible sadness in his eyes. I told you not to go into the room. Now, I must do my duty.
She could not change his mind by telling a story like Scheherazade. He was the one who told the stories.
How did Bluebeard’s Wife survive?
More to the point. How did Bluebeard’s Daughter survive?
She found away to kill Bluebeard and make it look like an accident.
This wouldn’t be easy. Getting out wouldn’t be either.
But Bluebeard’s Daughter was very, very clever.
And now, at least, she had a story to tell.
Marty Fugate · Copyright © 2013 · All Rights Reserved