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The Overseers
Book Six

Chapter One

“That’s the last of them,” Jackson said with finality, as he pushed a stack of books toward Johanna. “Once you’ve read these, you’ll know everything there is to know about the realm of Terroria. Although, why you want to become an expert on planet evil is beyond me.”
          Johanna shook her head. “That’s why I’m the curator of the Library of Illumination and you’re just my assistant.”
          “Hey, hey, hey, didn’t you hear what they said when we stood trial for breaching the portals? I’m a curator-in-training. I’m the one waiting in the wings to pick up the pieces.”
          “Well then, you’d better read some of these, too,” she said as she pushed the pile of Terrorian history books she’d already read in his direction. “Then we’ll both be prepared.”
          “Prepared for what?”
          “I’m not sure.” She felt her nerve endings jitter. “But it never hurts to be prepared. You never know what can happen.”
          As if on cue, the middle of the venerable library began to wobble and shimmer, like the air that hovers above a hot roadway on a steamy summer day. Suddenly, a twenty-second-century time machine appeared. Johanna’s predecessor, Mal, had used the same vehicle to transport Casanova back to eighteenth-century Venice after the legendary lover suddenly popped out of a book in the library and stayed. Mal smiled as he stepped out. His appearance had changed dramatically in the short weeks since Johanna and Jackson had last seen him.
          “Are you growing a beard?” Johanna walked to her mentor and gave him a hug. Mal had been in charge of the library for nearly four hundred years, and had only relinquished his stewardship after he personally trained Johanna to deal with the intrusions, oddities, and aftermaths of living literature.
          Mal stroked his face and smiled. “It itched a little at first, but I’m getting used to it now.”
          “It makes you look older,” she observed.
          “Yeah,” Jackson said. “You used to look four hundred and thirty years old, and now you look four hundred and thirty-one.”
          “Don’t listen to him.” Johanna placed her arm protectively around Mal’s shoulder. “You don’t look a day over eighty.”
          Mal smiled. “I come with sad news and happy news.”
          “I think the actual saying is, ‘I have some good news and some bad news,’” Jackson quipped.
         Mal drew in a long breath. “Sadly, we will say our final goodbyes to Plato Indelicat tomorrow. He’ll be enshrined following a celebration of his life and a memorial to his death. On a more positive note, his replacement will be inducted into the College of Overseers on the following afternoon.”
          “Will anyone ever be able to take his place?” Johanna wondered out loud.
          “Where do overseers come from anyway?” Jackson asked. “Is there a special place filled with them, like Overseers-R-Us? Do they have to supply their own hats? I know Plato Indelicat really lost his cool after the Terrorians knocked his pope hat off his head.”
          Mal’s eyes grew more focused. “Can you tell me what became of Plato Indelicat’s headpiece?”
          Jackson shook his head. “Not really.”
          “We were too busy trying to stay ahead of the crowd,” Johanna said. “They had turned into a lynch mob, and we didn’t want to become hostages, too.”
          “So it remains on Terroria,” Mal said.
          “Unless the explosion obliterated it,” Johanna replied.
          “Yeah,” Jackson chimed in. “The last place we saw it was in the building around the corner from the library, and that place was blown to smithereens—which was really good for us, because that’s how we escaped.”
          Johanna took Mal’s hand. “So what’s the happy news?”
          “I’ve been selected as one of the candidates for the vacant overseer’s position.”
          “One of the candidates!” Johanna smiled broadly. “Who are the others?”
          “Well, you wouldn’t know them all because they’re from other worlds, but there’s Prophet IAN c. from Adventura, who is the current library curator there. You may have met Torran, the head of the Library Council on Dramatica. He declared himself a contender, although I don’t think his chances are very good. Then there’s Dame Erato, the former curator of Romantica, who relocated to Lumina many years ago and has reinvented herself as something of an inspirational insider. She and Prophet IAN c. are both strong competitors.”
          “Do you think you have a chance?” Jackson asked.
          “I have my strengths. But ultimately it will be whoever the overseers believe brings the most needed assets to the college at this point in time. Whether that resource is political, administrative, militaristic, or inspirational remains to be seen.
          “There will be a challenge among the four of us, and any others who choose to declare themselves by noon tomorrow. I’m hoping the two of you will remain after the memorial service to cheer me on.”
          Johanna grabbed Mal’s arm. “We’re invited to Plato Indelicat’s memorial service?”
          “Of course,” Mal answered. “That’s why I’m here.”
          Jackson nodded solemnly. “Cool.”
          “But I’ll have to stay behind to take care of the library, Mal.” Johanna sighed. “Both Jackson and I can’t be gone at the same time.”
          “The library will be closed. All the Libraries of Illumination will cease operations for two days as a sign of respect for Plato Indelicat, and will not reopen until a new overseer has been sworn in.”
          Jackson slapped his hand on top of the circulation desk. “That seals the deal for me.”
          “Where is this all happening?” Johanna asked.
          “Everything takes place on Lumina.”
          She felt surprised that she and Jackson were invited. “The overseers sealed the portals after the Terrorians tried to take over the libraries. How will we get there if the portals are sealed?”
          “I will escort you both.”
          “In that?” Jackson asked, not trying to hide his excitement.
          “Absolutely. There’s nothing like traveling in a time machine.” Mal wiggled his eyebrows and grinned.
          Jackson entered the time machine and looked around. “It’s like standing inside a bubble.” There appeared to be no floor, nor doors, nor any visible controls. He touched the surface. It felt firm and warm, as smooth as glass, yet undulated when he touched it.
          Johanna idly straightened out the circulation desk. “Why do we need a time machine if we’re traveling in the present?”
          “Because it will take us back to a time when the portals were open, so we can travel to Lumina and then zigzag back to the present.” He tapped on the outside of the bubble twice, then exchanged places with Jackson. “I’ll be back tomorrow morning at ten sharp.” He pointed a finger at the curator-in-training, then laughed and shook his head, lowering his finger. “You won’t be late.”
          “You’ve got that right,” Jackson answered. “I’ll get here by nine so I don’t miss a thing.”
          Mal waved. The air around the time machine seemed to melt for a second before the apparatus disappeared.
          “Lumina,” Jackson said in awe. “We’ve been to three realms, including our own, and now we’re going to Lumina. I’d never even been out of the country before we discovered the portals, but tomorrow I’ll travel off world for the third time. How cool is that?”
          “We’re going to a funeral and then to Mal’s challenge. You’re acting like we’re the guests of honor at the Grammy Awards.”
          “I know, but this is the most amazing thing that has ever happened to me.” He shrugged one shoulder and leaned over to kiss her. “Actually, you’re the most amazing thing that ever happened to me. If you had never come to school and asked me if I wanted to work in the library, I’d probably be tossing pizzas at Piccolo Italia. Free pizza is nice, but not as nice as traveling to other realms with you.”
          He pushed the books on Terroria aside. “Do you think we have any books downstairs on Lumina? I think I’d like to study up on that world before we leave tomorrow.”
          “Sometimes you surprise me.” Johanna laughed.
          He winked at her. “Refreshing, isn’t it?”

Plenty of books about Lumina lined the shelves, as well as folios of pictures, and Jackson grew more captivated with every new detail he learned. “I can’t believe most of their world is covered with water.”
          “I don’t know if it’s most of the world. The cities are built on numerous outcrops that jut way above the surface.”
          “Yeah, look at this picture of the capital. The bottom of the giant outcrop looks like it rests on legs—kind of like a huge molar. The middle is open, and I bet you can sail a tanker right through it.”
          “Like a subway traveling under a city.”
          “No, this is way cooler than a subway. Besides, anyone riding in a subway would drown unless by subway you mean submarine.”
          “The golden city on top of the rocks makes it look so ethereal.” She ran her finger across a picture in Lumina: Past and Present. Instantly a miniature three-dimensional version of the capital city of Lumi appeared, complete with clouds above and water below.
          Jackson moved closer and stared at one of the rock legs supporting the outcrop. “Look. This one has a door.”
          Johanna walked over to get a better look. “I would have loved this as a kid. It’s better than a dollhouse. I never owned one, but I once saw one in a museum and I thought it looked like the most wonderful toy in the world.”
          As they watched, a round wooden tub with a dozen oarsmen sitting around its radius rowed up to the tiny entrance. One of the oarsmen unlocked the door, and a group of tiny Luminans disembarked and disappeared inside, allowing the door to slam shut with a resounding thud.
          “Can you believe this?” Jackson laughed.
          Johanna laughed as well, but it changed to a gasp when she saw a group of men appear from under the surface of the water and begin pulling the oars and tossing them away so the oarsmen couldn’t row. The tiny sailors grappled with their attackers, but one by one many of them were pulled into the water. A few others managed to hang on to their oars and moved into the middle of the tub, where they used them to fight off their assailants. One of the attackers hoisted himself onto the vessel, soon learning he had made a big mistake.
          “Holy … frit. Look at him,” Jackson cried. “He’s a fish!”
          Johanna squinted. “I think the correct term is merman.”
          “Like Ethel Merman—the singer some of those guys at the Comedy Club impersonate?”
          “No. Like the male equivalent of a mermaid.”
          “I knew that.”
          While Johanna and Jackson talked, the oarsmen beat the brazen merman to a pulp and pushed his body overboard—an example of what other underwater creatures could expect if they thought about hijacking a boat. That ended the attack, and in a single blink, the bodies of the fallen oarsmen and beaten merman disappeared under the surface of the murky water.
          Johanna slammed the book shut. “I could have done without that.”
          “Yeah. But this isn’t a storybook. It’s a textbook that describes how things are on Lumina. And apparently everything isn’t fun and games in the golden city.”
          “Let’s just hope we don’t have to travel anywhere on the water while we’re there.”
          A phone call from Book Services informed them they had just received a scholarly request for research information and ancient texts. The order kept Johanna and Jackson busy for the rest of the afternoon. When they finished, Johanna sent Jackson home. She needed time to get ready for their impromptu trip. Besides, she didn’t want to start talking about Lumina again. She still felt uneasy about the attack they had witnessed when the book came to life, and it reminded her of the potential for an attack by Terrorians if any of them were actually invited to the memorial service. She hoped not, but that wasn’t her decision to make. The thought of running into Nero 51 again turned a trip that might be meaningful and interesting into a duty that filled her with dread.

That night, as she nestled under the duvet in her bedroom, Johanna opened Mal’s diary and asked him if Nero 51 would also be on Lumina. Except for the time when she served her sentence on Terroria, Mal’s answers to her requests had always been immediate; but tonight she dozed off waiting for his reply. When she awakened in the middle of the night, he still hadn’t answered her. She glanced at her clock. It was two in the morning—more than three hours after she asked the question. He had never taken so long to answer before. Johanna dozed off again, but continued to wake and check for Mal’s answer every hour or so. At seven she threw off the covers and arose for the day. A quick check told her Mal still hadn’t responded.
          To take her mind off Mal, she focused on her wardrobe. She selected a long tan-and-black chevron-print sweater and paired it with a short black skirt and black boots. She studied herself in the mirror. Funeral attire. She added a belt and a scarf. Stylish funeral attire. She packed something more festive for the induction ceremony as well as comfy clothing to relax in. She brought her bag down to the circulation desk. It was still too early for Mal to show up, but Jackson should be on his way.
          She grabbed Mal’s diary to see if he had answered her question, but the last page of the diary remained blank. She threw the book in her bag and sighed. Sometimes she hated being efficient. She had officially closed the library and packed her bags for their trip to Lumina, but it was still early. While she waited, she did the only thing she could think of that felt natural—she paced.

A half-hour later, the back door flew open and Jackson breezed in. “I know I’m late, but I really needed to eat something, so I stopped to pick up some coffee and donuts. Unfortunately, everyone in town had the same idea. I thought of saying ‘screw it,’ but who knows when we’ll get to eat again?”
          Johanna stared at him. “Is that a tie?”
          “Yeah. You like it?” He stroked a narrow strip of black leather with pride. He wore it over a light blue shirt and khakis. Everything else he needed he’d stuffed in the backpack slung over his shoulder.
          “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you wear a tie before.”
          “I don’t think I’ve ever owned a tie before. I bought this one on my way home last night. It’s real leather.”
          She gently touched the black leather and then straightened out the knot. “You look very nice. I like it.”
          He grinned. “I couldn’t have done it without you. My salary bump for being elevated from assistant to curator-in-training made it all possible.
          “Now all I have to do is make sure I don’t spill any coffee on myself. Just to be safe, I didn’t buy any jelly or cream-filled donuts. Why take chances?”
          “Why indeed.” She removed a plain cruller from the bag of treats.
          They chatted amiably until the grandfather clock struck ten. Johanna gulped down her coffee and used her hand to sweep the donut crumbs into the paper bag. “Mal will be here any second.”
          Jackson refused to rush through his morning meal and took his time as Johanna fussed. The minutes ticked by. When he finished, he threw his coffee cup and crumbs in the trash bag and took it out to the dumpster. The clock chimed the quarter hour when he returned.
          Johanna’s smile faded. “He’s late.”
          “So the guy got hung up. Maybe he had to make an under-the-counter deal for the transport of human cargo.’”
          Johanna didn’t answer.
          “That’s what Mal said when he picked up Casanova. Don’t you remember? He said he had to bargain with the people at Lloyds of London.”
          “You don’t understand. Mal is always punctual. He’s very reliable. His schedule usually runs like clockwork. But last night he didn’t answer a question I asked his diary. And now he’s late. Something’s wrong.”
          Jackson studied Johanna’s face. Her eyes had a glassy sheen, like she was on the verge of tears. He pulled her into a hug. “Don’t worry. It won’t matter if he’s late. He’s got a time machine, and no matter what time he gets here, we can travel back to the perfect moment to pass through the portals.”
          He rubbed her back to calm her down and felt her start to relax, but she grew tense again when the clock chimed the half-hour.